Exploring the interplay of climate change and intra-community conflict
The effects of climate change have a substantial impact on a country’s social, political, and environmental conditions. The bearing of climate-induced changes on issues such as water availability, food security, and migration is undeniably significant.
As tension and insecurity regarding life and livelihood opportunities in climate-vulnerable regions continue to increase, there is a growing possibility for both inter and intra-community-level violence and conflict to occur.
While there is no direct relationship between climate change and security, it is important to note that the chain of consequences instigated by climate-related changes eventually affects the parameters that are sometimes important in generating or exacerbating conflict, thereby creating multiple routes for indirect connections.
To support this assumption, various research studies on the topic have successfully linked at least one climate-related variable, such as increased temperatures or changes in rainfall patterns, etc with different streams of conflict, including interpersonal, intergroup, or societal collapse.
While it is accepted that climate change has complex interactions with the political, social, economic, and environmental drivers of conflict, the context, and mechanism that can potentially drive outbreaks of violence is yet to be fully understood.
Tension over shared resources
As researchers are continually working to make links between climate change, security, and conflict, concerns have been raised that Bangladesh’s extreme vulnerability to the environmental effects of climate change may create conditions that put it at risk of greater insecurity and possible conflict.
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. This already induces significant pressure on food, land, and one of the most contested resources at the national and regional level: water.
According to recent projections, climate change will dramatically increase river and groundwater salinity by 2050 and create a shortage of water, both for drinking and irrigation, especially in the country’s southwest coastal areas.
This will affect the livelihoods of at least 2.9 million of the poorest groups in the region, where 1.5 million are already struggling for access to potable water. Therefore, the impacts of climate change will inevitably escalate regional tensions due to competition over fundamental needs, such as water resources.
The southwestern coasts of Bangladesh are frequently faced with a variety of natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, and river erosion. The vulnerability of the region has been further enhanced by the additional impacts of climate change, leaving the population poorer and more marginalized.
To cope with rising salinity issues, the region has seen a massive shift from agriculture to shrimp aquaculture. The expansion of large scale shrimp farming, due to its investment and maintenance costs, benefitted businessmen and large scale farmers far more.
Under these renewed circumstances a certain segment of the middle and low-income population, who were no longer able to earn from their small-scale agrarian practices, had to either migrate or be transformed into low-wage workers in these industrial-scale shrimp farms.
The change in the region’s environment stirred remarkable changes in people’s livelihood circumstances; expanding the existing inequality in the region and propagating tension within community members.
In addition, shifting to shrimp aquaculture also left detrimental impacts on the region’s ecology. By making the soil more saline and infertile, vast stretches of land have been rendered unsuitable for agricultural activities.
Considering that laws of land zoning are barely practised in these areas, this shift also affected the land productivity of neighbouring small scale farmers who continued their agrarian practices.
As insecurity due to land access and natural resource management continued to grow in the area, there have been incidental reports of violence within the community in the form of clashes between groups of agricultural farmers and shrimp farmers.
The above-mentioned example paints a vivid image of how climate change can worsen existing vulnerabilities and challenge traditional practices within a region, provoking further tension over food and water security. This in turn can create openings for greater insecurity and conflict within a community.
Settling conflict to create resilience
As such to build long-term climate resilience, it is highly important to integrate security dimensions within climate action and its associated policy discourses, strategies, and initiatives.
The knowledge that is available in this regard is still inadequate to set a baseline scenario and understand the full context. At present, existing policies relevant to the climate-security nexus mostly focus on adaptation and socio-economic resilience because climate change is primarily seen as a challenge for livelihoods and economic growth.
However, vulnerable countries are yet to consider all aspects of climate fragility risks, including those related to the sharing of resources within climate-vulnerable communities.
The relationship between climate change and security leads to a dual plight for climate-vulnerable groups.
On one hand, the potential for increased conflict in climate-sensitive regions will deter adaptation progress and can render people poorer and less resilient. Conversely, the impacts of climate change on society and the environment will also continue to provoke conflict within communities and the region.
It is therefore essential to address the two issues cohesively and further understand the architecture of the relationship.
In order to devise better strategies for conflict management in climate-sensitive regions, it is important to ensure that governance mechanisms, infrastructure development, community responses, and climate action as a whole, is more conflict-sensitive.
This would entail taking into consideration the local conflict dynamics, and the impacts of different development and adaptation activities undertaken by donors, government, and other organizations on these dynamics.
In addition, it is also important to ensure that adaptation actions undertaken address root causes and do not further aggravate drivers of conflict.
In this regard, there is now a great need for strengthening the understanding of different social, economic, political, as well as environmental factors that can lead to climate change-induced social instability, and accordingly, design better-informed policy and practices for climate action.
Riadadh Hossain is a Programme Coordinator at ICCCAD, working on climate finance and impact evaluation of adaptation actions.
Shababa Haque is an environmental researcher and a PhD candidate working on sustainable social entrepreneurship at Durham University, UK.
Sumaiya Binte Anwar is a Research Officer at ICCCAD working in the Urban Resilience Program. She is a Civil Engineer and a climate enthusiast.