A number of commentators, journalists and analysts have recently focused on competition for natural resources, increasingly scarce due to global warming, as the trigger of the conflict in western Sudan.
"It [global warming] has become such a trendy issue that everything is being packaged as climate change," said Sorcha O'Callaghan, a researcher at the UK-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
"Competition for resources has definitely been one of the main issues in the conflict, but undue emphasis on it, at the expense of other causes, is an attempt to simplify the crisis. The complexity of the different factors driving Darfur's conflict need to be borne in mind in efforts towards its resolution and, therefore, over-simplification should be avoided", she added.
Blaming climate change
Among the earliest commentators to put a global warming spin on the Darfur crisis was economist Jeffrey Sachs. "Recent years have shown that shifts in rainfall can bring down governments and even set off wars. The African Sahel, just south of the Sahara, provides a dramatic and poignant demonstration," he wrote in an article on the Scientific American website in July last year.
"The deadly carnage in Darfur, Sudan, for example, which is almost always discussed in political and military terms, has roots in an ecological crisis directly arising from climate shocks," Sachs wrote.
A report on how climate change posed a threat to global security was produced earlier this year for the think-tank, CNA Corporation, by a group of former US military officials.
"Darfur provides a case study of how existing marginal situations can be exacerbated beyond the tipping point by climate-related factors. It also shows how lack of essential resources threatens not only individuals and their communities but also the region and the international community at large," the report commented.
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote, "Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change."
Sudan - conflict since independence
In its 50 years of independence, Africa's largest country has been plagued by conflicts rooted, many historians say, in the economic, political, social and military domination of the country by a narrow elite within northern Sudan.
Civil war has touched the ten southern states, also the west (all three Darfur states), the centre (Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states), the east (Kassala State) and the northeast (Red Sea State).
"Fighting in Darfur has occurred intermittently for at least thirty years. Until 2003, it was mostly confined to a series of partly connected tribal and local conflicts ... [then] these hostilities escalated into a full-scale military confrontation in all three Darfur states, which also frequently spills into neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic," according to a new report, Sudan: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
A range of causes
Understanding all the causes of the Darfur crisis may need a more nuanced approach. Julie Flint, who with Alex de Waal, wrote the book Darfur: The Short History of a Long War, told IRIN, "There is some truth in this [the link between conflict and the demand for natural resources]. The great drought and famine of 1984-85 led to localised conflicts that generally pitted pastoralists against farmers in a struggle for diminishing resources, culminating in the Fur-Arab war of 1987-89."
But attempts to paint the Darfur conflict as simply resource-based "whitewashes the Sudan government", claimed Flint. The "full-fledged tragedy" starting in 2003, was caused by the government's response to the rebellion, "for which two people have already been indicted for war crimes by the ICC [International Criminal Court] - not by resource conflict".
The ODI's O'Callaghan listed a range of causes for the conflict, none of which a sole or primary cause: "Historical grievances, local perceptions of race, demands for a fair sharing of power between different groups, the inequitable distribution of economic resources and benefits, disputes over access to and control over increasingly scarce natural resources (land, livestock and water), the proliferation of arms and the militarisation of young people, the absence of a democratic process and other governance issues ... Local issues have been politicised and militarised, and drawn into the wider political dynamics of Sudan," she commented.
Geoffrey Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Programme at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, noted that "competition between pastoralists and agriculturalists is key to so many conflicts in East Africa, including the crisis in Darfur. Violence between tribes and ethnic groups are the most visible dividing lines, but the stories of these conflicts cannot be told without including underlying environmental and demographic stresses."
The climate change factor
Sudan, along with other countries in the Sahel belt, has suffered several long and devastating droughts in the past few decades, the UNEP assessment pointed out. The most severe drought occurred in 1980-1984, and was accompanied by widespread displacement and localised famine.
The UNEP report also listed the erosion of natural resources caused by climate change as among the root causes of social strife and conflict.
"The scale of historical climate change, as recorded in Northern Darfur, is almost unprecedented: the reduction in rainfall has turned millions of hectares of already marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert. The impact of climate change is considered to be directly related to the conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on the livelihoods of pastoralist societies, forcing them to move south to find pasture," the report states.
Muawia Shaddad, of the Sudan Environment Conservation Society, told IRIN from Khartoum that data collected since 1917 in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur, showed that the average annual rainfall had halved. "But when we say that the conflicts started because of resources we are not denying the government did not make massive errors, and ethnicity had no role to play: all these things found a fertile soil in a situation which was already tense because of the demand for resources."
The UNEP report, too, acknowledges that many elements contributing to the conflict in Sudan have little or no link to the environment or natural resources. These include political, religious, ethnic, tribal and clan divisions, economic influences, land tenure deficiencies and historical feuds. "In addition, where environment and natural resource management issues are important, they are generally contributing factors only - not the sole cause for tension."
The simplification trap
Dabelko, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, commented: "The challenge is to avoid over-simplistic or deterministic formulations that equate climate change inexorably with genocide or terrorism, as some less careful commentators have done."
O'Callaghan also challenged commentators who "simplistically portrayed the Darfur conflict as an ethnic struggle between Arabs and Africans". "With political and military allegiances shifting between different groups, there is now greater acceptance that this does not adequately reflect the roots of the conflict," she said.
UNEP has identified categories of natural resources that have been linked to the various conflicts in Sudan: oil and gas reserves; Nile water; hardwood timber; rangeland and rain-fed agricultural land, and the associated water points.
The UN agency also considers the pastoralists versus agriculturalists theory simplistic. "The rural ethnic and livelihood structures of Sudan are so complex and area-specific that any summary of the issue of resource competition on a national scale is, by definition, a gross simplification. For instance, traditional pastoralist and agricultural societies in Sudan are not always clearly separated: in many areas, societies (families, clans and even whole tribes) practice a mixture of crop-growing and animal-rearing."
The report divides the groups into predominantly sedentary crop-rearing societies/tribes; nomadic livestock-rearing societies/tribes; and owners of, and workers in, mechanised agricultural schemes. The three groups depend all on rainfall for their livelihood.
Most of the recorded local conflicts take place within and between the first two groups, according to UNEP. The third group - the mechanised farming group - is generally not directly involved in conflict, but has played a very strong role in precipitating it in some states, by uncontrolled land grabs from the other two groups.
"[In the] Nuba Mountains and in Blue Nile State, combatants reported that the expansion of mechanised agricultural schemes onto their land had precipitated the fighting, which had then escalated, and coalesced with the major north-south political conflict."
Throughout Sudan's recorded history, pastoralists resisting the shrinkage and degradation of rangelands have been at the centre of local conflicts: competing with other groups for choice grazing land; moving and grazing livestock on cropland without consent; reducing competition by forcing other pastoralists and agriculturalists off previously shared land, said the UN agency's report.
In the Um Chelluta region of Southern Darfur, rain-fed agricultural land increased by 138 percent between 1973 and 2000, while rangeland decreased by 56 percent and closed woodland shrank by 32 percent. UNEP warned that the historical, ongoing, and forecast shrinkage and degradation of remaining rangelands in the northern part of the Sahel belt was set to exacerbate the situation.
A vicious cycle
Conflict, in its turn, is taking its toll on the environment. UNEP pointed out that the fighting in Darfur was often characterised by a 'scorched earth' campaign, carried out by militias over large areas, which not only resulted in a significant number of civilian deaths, but the widespread destruction of villages and forests, and the displacement of victims fleeing to camps for protection, food and water.
So environmental degradation is one of the driving forces of displacement and, according to UNEP, the environment is being further undermined by the sheer number of displaced people and refugees.
The environmental impact of a refugee or displacement camp is often high: UNEP researchers in Darfur found that extensive deforestation could be found as far as 10km from a camp; in some the situation was being aggravated by brick-making.
"One large tree is needed to provide the fire to make around 3,000 bricks. In addition, the clay needed for brick-making can damage trees by exposing roots, and also create pits in which water collects and mosquitoes can thrive," the UN agency warned. "It is possible that some camps in Darfur will run out of viable fuel wood supplies within walking distance, resulting in major fuel shortages.
The UNEP report made recommendations to control and address the situation, including investment in environmental management, climate adaptation measures; capacity building of national and local government in environmental affairs, and the integration of environmental factors in all UN relief and development projects.
"The total cost of this report's recommendations is estimated at approximately US$120 million over three to five years. These are not large figures when compared to the Sudanese GDP in 2005 of $85.5 billion."