Nature?s hand in Civil Unrest

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Somali people arrive in UN-run refugee camps in Doolow, south western Somalia. Somalis are fleeing to Ethiopia to escape war and a severe drought currently ravaging the country, with the UN declaring famine in five Somali regions. Photo - Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

A recent study has found a relation between the occurrence of the El Ni?o climate cycle and the risk of civil wars in 90 tropical countries. El Ni?o (also known as ENSO for El Ni?o-Southern Oscillation) is a climate pattern occurs in the Pacific Ocean every 4-7 years. It takes a toll on the climate, influencing the global climate patterns mainly across the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Americas. It can lead to droughts, increase the risk of other natural disasters such as hurricanes, etc. ?El Ni?o normally occurs around the time of Christmas (25th December), a time Christians believed that Jesus Christ was born and is the Spanish word for “the Christ Child.?


Historians and climate specialists have found no signs that changes in climate led to conflict and decline in societies of the past.

But in a recent study, a link has been discovered between El Ni?o?s heat which are preceded by droughts and the upheaval of countries that suffer from it.

“These events can lead to increases in income inequality … and a labor market effect,” said Kyle Meng of , Columbia University’s Earth Institute ?and co-author of the study. “These lead to increased unemployment, which makes the opportunities to fight a little bit more attractive.”

And since El Ni?o patterns can be predicted up to two years in advance, scientists suggest their findings could be used to help prepare for some conflicts and the humanitarian crises they cause.

Between the years,1950 and 2004, the dramatic climate change seems to have influenced 1 out of 5 ?out of every civil conflicts scientists reported in the journal Nature.

Since 1950 for 80 to 90 percent of all conflicts were characterized by internal civil conflicts and thus, the researchers focused on such conflicts. They have reason to believe that the changes make it tough for governments to enforce laws as well.

Peru in 1982 and Sudan in 1963, 1976 and 1983 showed ?links between El Nino patterns and civil unrest, the research revealed. El Salvador, the Philippines and Uganda in 1972; Angola, Haiti and Myanmar in 1991, and Congo, Eritrea, Indonesia and Rwanda in 1997 are other countries with a strong link between violence and El Ni?o.

Although it seems that about 40% of the conflicts would have occurred regardless of nature?s influence, the scientists that El Ni?o made those conflicts more likely. Poor countries were found to be at greater risk.

“It’s the poorest countries that respond to El Nino with violence,” said study co-author Mark Cane, a climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The researchers correlated El Ni?os from 1950 to 2004 with civil conflicts that killed more than 25 people in a given year, including 175 countries and 234 conflicts, over half of which caused more than 1,000 battle-related deaths.

In countries where the El Ni?o cycle had a great influence on the weather, there was a 6% chance of civil war breaking out when the hot, dry El Nino pattern was in force. The scientists found that this was twice the chance of internal conflict when the cooler, wetter La Nina climatic pattern was taking place.


Solomon Hsiang, a graduate of Columbia University’s Earth Institute doctorate program in sustainable development is the study’s lead author. “This study shows a systematic pattern of global climate affecting conflict and shows it right now.”

A senior researcher at Oslo’s Centre for the Study of Civil War, Halvard Buhaug has dismissed the study saying, “It would boost the credibility of the claim if a proper theory were developed, pointing to specific causal mechanisms linking warming of the . . . Pacific with civil war outbreak.” He went on to say, “These are obvious challenges for future research. For now, I find it advisable to exercise restraint in embracing the notion of a causal El Nino-civil war connection.”

Hsiang in fact, agreed with Buhaug is right: There are no specific examples in the study. He added, “We only wanted to speak to what we can prove.? The findings have been compared to the first studies that tied cigarettes to cancer without specific linkages. There was truth in it, but back then those studies were only in their beginning phases. Therefore he prompted further studies to get a deeper and wider look into the phenomenon.

As the saying goes, in the research world, ?Correlation is not causation.? Just because the amount of civil unrest has been found to have a direct link with the climate pattern in question it does not mean that the El Ni?o cycle is directly responsible for the conflicts. But the pattern has been observed for 50 years and this makes it plausible to believe that there is no reason why this pattern may not continue. The study?s findings therefore, emphasizes the importance of taking precautions, to reduce the effects nature can have on life and peace.

“What (the study) does show, beyond any doubt, is that even in this modern world, climate variations have an impact on the propensity of people to fight,” Cane said. “And it is frankly difficult to see why that won’t carry over to a world that is disrupted by global warming.”

Sources: Reuters, Concorde Monitor, The National

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