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A perfect storm – when conflict and climate collide

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ALEXANDRA BILAK , BARBARA ESSIG

Most of us will remember 2020 as a time of movement restrictions and forced immobility. Millions of people around the world were, however, forced to leave their homes in the midst of the pandemic. Despite calls for a global ceasefire by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, fighting continued unabated in many crisis regions. Particularly intense storm seasons hit Asia and the Pacific, while the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa experienced extended periods of heavy rain.

According to IDMC's new global report, this resulted in 40.5 million new displacements, or movements, in 2020 - the highest figure in a decade. Of these, 30.7 million were triggered by disasters and 9.8 million by conflict and violence. As shocking as these figures might be, they hide another worrying trend that is more difficult to quantify: What happens when the various drivers of displacement - conflict, fragility, natural hazards, and climate change -- collide to trap people in a downward spiral of vulnerability and risk.

In 2020, ninety-five per cent of displacements triggered by conflict occurred in countries vulnerable to climate change impacts. How exactly the different variables of the displacement equation influence and depend on each other is difficult to foresee and greatly depends on the local and regional context. Examples from the Sahel region of Africa, Yemen, Mozambique and Somalia can help to illustrate and understand the scale of the problem.

The Liptako Gourma region in the Sahel is one of the most prominent examples of how climate shocks can fuel conflict. The area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger has suffered prolonged periods of drought in recent years, resulting in land and water scarcity and fuelling conflicts between farmers and pastoralists. Extremist groups have managed to exploit the situation and expand their influence in all three countries. Their activities triggered nearly one million new displacements in the region in 2020.

Disasters and the effects of climate change not only catalyze violence, but they also tend to hit hardest those who have already been uprooted by conflict. Devastating floods and storms led to over 200,000 new displacements in Yemen in 2020, exceeding the numbers triggered by fighting between the government and the Houthi movement. Many of those uprooted by extreme weather had been previously displaced by the ongoing conflict and were living in makeshift shelters and informal settlements, particularly vulnerable to flooding. The repeated displacement made them lose the little they still had left.

Overlapping conflict and disaster displacement is particularly devastating when combined with general fragility and food insecurity. In Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province, violence spread in 2020 only a few months after the country had been hit by cyclone Kenneth. Beyond repeated displacement, this further increased food insecurity as attacks targeting infrastructure disrupted access for humanitarian aid providers. In addition, most of those displaced could not access their agricultural land to farm. In Somalia, torrential rains created the perfect conditions for a severe locust infestation, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and posing an acute threat to the food security of a large part of the population. This came on top of widespread floods, which triggered almost one million displacements, forcing many people already uprooted by violence to flee once more.

More research is needed to understand exactly how conflict, fragility, natural hazards, and climate change interlink and under which conditions they create the perfect storm for displacement. This should, however, not keep us from starting to adapt our solutions to the multifaceted drivers of displacement today. Climate change is a reality and very likely to further increase the frequency and intensity of disasters in the future. Meanwhile, as the world's population expands, more and more people are forced to live in hazard-prone areas.

Adapting to this new reality requires strong, sustainable partnerships between national governments, UN agencies and civil society. Together, we will have to start working on truly integrated and comprehensive responses to displacement and forced migration. Food insecurity, economic opportunities, environmental degradation and climate change mitigation will have to become as much a part of stabilisation and peacebuilding efforts as political and security considerations are currently. Just as people uprooted by conflict will have to be more effectively protected against repeated displacement from disasters or climate change. This could start, for example, with implementation of early warning systems, construction of more resilient housing and infrastructure and incorporating disaster risk reduction strategies into national development plans.

Learning how to address overlapping conflict and disaster displacement crises will be one of the big humanitarian and development challenges in the years to come. If we want our responses to match the scale of the problem, we better start acting now.