2/2013
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Laura Sundblad

Climate change, conflict, and gender inequality

The cases of livestock and water in the Horn of Africa.

Climate change and variability, conflict and instability, and severe inequality between genders are all formidable development challenges for the Horn of Africa. The relationships between the three issues are complex and context-specific, yet popular views are often sensationalist and oversimplified.

This article outlines some of the ways in which climate change and environmental degradation, conflict and inequality between genders interact in two areas that are key concerns in the Horn of Africa: livestock and water. Both of these cases show that causal explanations between climate change and conflict are often misleading and can be dangerous as they imply that conflict is inevitable and that vulnerability is innate.

Instead of such oversimplifications, more focus is needed on the political, social and economic systems that inhibit the adaptive mechanisms of marginalized people.

Climate and conflict – a causal relationship?

In both the practitioner and academic communities, there is a lively debate on whether climate change has caused, is currently causing, or will cause in the future an increase in the number or intensity of violent conflicts. This debate is epitomized in the following two statements:

It is an indisputable fact that climate change will lead to more and more conflicts caused either by growing competition for access to and distribution of resources, such as water and arable land, or by the rising number of natural disasters” (Ulrike Röhr, gender and climate change activist);

While climate change is expected to exacerbate conditions that can contribute to intrastate conflict, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of conflict”. (Geoffrey Dabelko, Senior Adviser of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center)

The relationship between climate change and conflicts is a controversial issue. Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN.

The debate on climate and conflict builds on the extensive body of literature on the relationship between natural resources, extractive industries and conflict, particularly civil war. This literature is largely organized around the “greed versus grievance”, or abundance versus scarcity, debate.

Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon is a key proponent on the scarcity side, arguing that environmental scarcity resulting from degradation of environmental resources, population growth and unequal resource distribution causes violent conflict.

This was contested by Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler in a research conducted for the World Bank, which found that the conventional view of ethnic, religious, political or economic grievances causing conflict had little explanatory power when modeled, while income predation from natural resources (greed) had stronger explanatory power.

Thus, countries with abundant natural resources had higher risk of conflict, except at very high levels of natural resources, where the risk was relatively lower. Notwithstanding the considerable complicating factors in the debate, such as the different definitions of conflict and different time scales that are used, and the problems associated with using short-term variability as a proxy for long-term change, the debate is endless.

Conflict is a human phenomenon, and so the triggers, drivers and mitigating factors will necessarily depend on the context and nature of a given social system. At the same time, individual agency and leadership also determine whether conflict is managed in a peaceful or violent manner. Moreover, the impacts of climate change on humans will always be coupled with other risk drivers to the extent that it is difficult if not impossible to discern which impacts are caused by climate change and which by other factors.

For the purpose of this article, proving or disproving these types of causal links is less important than exploring the relationship and assessing overlapping impacts.

The capacities and vulnerabilities

Approach A useful method for organizing the analysis of the overlapping impacts of climate change and conflict is the Capacities and Vulnerabilities Approach (CVA) developed by Mary Anderson and Peter Woodrow in 1989. The CVA was originally designed as a tool to plan emergency aid in a manner that would address immediate and long-term needs while building on existing strengths. Vulnerabilities are defined in the CVA as the long-term factors that make people less able to cope with disasters or prolonged emergencies.

When using CVA, three categories of capabilities and vulnerabilities are addressed: physical/material; social/organizational; and motivational/attitudinal. The two cases addressed in this article fall under the physical/material category, though it is clear that social and organizational systems affect both livestock and water. In a situation with triple vulnerabilities, the CVA offers a way to map the situation and helps to ensure that building on certain strengths does not exacerbate vulnerabilities in another area. The CVA also enables the practitioner to move past the victim/agent dichotomy by recognizing that vulnerabilities and capabilities can and often do coexist.

It also allows for granularity in analysis as it recognizes that communities are not homogeneous in their capacities and vulnerabilities: gender, income, age, social status, and other factors affect responses to and experiences of environmental stress and conflict.

Case 1: Livestock

The livestock trade is an important source of livelihoods in the Horn, with the Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia borderlands being a growing, dynamic trading zone that has flourished despite ongoing conflict in the region.

The importance of livestock varies per country: for example, in Ethiopia, the value of exported live bovine animals, sheep and goat meat, other live animals, and sheep and lamb skins amounted to $221.2 million, or 8.6 percent of the top 10 export commodities of 2011, while in Somalia, livestock is the country’s main export, even though it typically generates only about $100 million in earnings per year. However, the importance of livestock goes beyond the value of exports. In Somalia, an estimated 60 percent of the income of the Somali people comes from livestock, while in Ethiopia, livestock accounts for 40 percent of the agricultural GDP, which in turn accounts for 55 percent of national GDP.

Gender and livestock

Gender roles have a significant impact in shaping the challenges and opportunities related to livestock rearing. Women face constraints in engaging in decision-making processes as well as accessing natural resources, extension services, markets and marketing opportunities, financial services, and land.

At the same time, because women are usually responsible for household meals, women’s ability to access and control livestock can have positive impacts on food security. More broadly in pastoralist societies, women have traditionally been innovators and experimenters in livelihoods, and are now taking advantage of new economic opportunities around trading towns. Moreover, customary norms defining men’s and women’s roles in livestock processes make women more exposed to various health risks including salmonellosis and zoonotic diseases, but also key agents in implementing safe food processing practices.

At times of stress, these limitations are exacerbated. In areas where women-headed households do not have access to livestock, like Eritrea, these households face greater vulnerability as livestock serves as a security buffer in times of heightened need. Moreover, in post-disaster and post-conflict environments, it is equally important for women and men to earn income to replace lost livestock or other assets, but women have less freedom to move away from the area impacted by conflict or disaster to search for new sources of income. Furthermore, when men seek employment away from home, the workload of women increases to include herding and livestock rearing. At the same time, they still have less access to education, credit and land.

Post-conflict and post-disaster recovery and development interventions in the livestock sector must take into consideration these existing gendered constraints and limitations. The types of livestock that are held as well as the responsibilities attached to them tend to be gender-dependent, but vary by region, country and community as per different economic, social and cultural contexts. However, these contexts do not necessarily have to be permanent or static.

The International Committee for the Red Cross remarks that post-conflict livelihoods assistance projects for women that involve animal husbandry tend to be more successful when involving small animals (poultry, goats), as it is less time-consuming and dangerous to care for such animals since they do not need extensive grazing areas. However, the African Development Bank advocates for encouraging women to own larger animals as they can be used for transportation, agriculture, or cash income by renting out to others.

This conflicting advice points to the need for context-specific gender analysis to inform development interventions, so that both men and women are able to safely and sustainably expand or maintain their livestock populations.

Climate and livestock

Mobile livestock-herding (pastoralism) is one of the few livelihoods that are well-suited for arid and semi-arid lands, and indeed, pastoralism originally developed as a response to the prolonged desiccation of the Sahara. Yet this resilient, well-adapted livelihood is under stress from increased climatic extremes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes in its 4th Assessment Report that increased maximum temperatures and increased hot days increase heat stress for livestock, while rangeland productivity will drop as areas affected by droughts and floods are likely to increase. This affects men and women in different ways.

In pastoralist societies, the roles of men and women tend to be tightly defined, and in systems where herds are split, men tend to travel and women stay in fixed homesteads. Thus men are forced to travel further, whereas women are impacted by there being less water at the homesteads.

However, Oxfam notes that in East Africa, more intense short rains could reduce the incidence of drought and thus benefit pastoralists; still, other impacts, including heat stress, agricultural encroachment and increased flooding, could outweigh these benefits. Another negative impact related to heavier rains is climate-sensitive diseases: Rift Valley Fever impacts both people and livestock, and is closely linked with heavy rainfall events. For example, an El Niño-linked outbreak in 1997 killed up to 80 percent of livestock in Somalia and northern Kenya.

Apart from the financial stress caused by damage to livestock from extreme environmental events, poor livestock condition impacts nutrition. Meat consumption in Ethiopia and Kenya has fallen over the last 50 years; in Ethiopia, from 79.83 kilocalories per capita per day in the 1960s to 43.97 kilocalories per capita per day in 2001–2007, and in Kenya from 83.42 to 77.64 in the same time period.

This is a different trajectory from Sub-Saharan Africa overall, where there has been a modest increase in meat consumption since 1961. In other countries outside the Horn where meat consumption has fallen, including Cote D’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the fall is attributed to civil war which affected meat supply, while the fall in Ethiopia and Kenya is attributed to drought, showing how climate change and variability and conflict can have similar impacts.

It should also be noted that livestock production itself can be a cause of environmental degradation and climate change, both on the local and global levels. For example, in the Eritrean uplands and western lowlands, livestock herding has led to a loss of vegetation and land degradation. However, in general, pastoralist ways of living are shaped around the environment and pastoralist livestock herding is one of the few livelihood strategies that are viable in drylands and compatible with the goals of biodiversity and wildlife conservation.

On the global level, livestock rearing contributes to climate change through methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide emissions. These emissions can also be viewed from a gender perspective, as men consume more meat globally than women. However, as noted above, meat consumption in the Horn itself is very low.

Conflict and livestock

As with climate and livestock, livestock is both impacted by conflict and can be a trigger for conflict itself. However, this relationship is complex. UNDP’s Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery identifies livestock as one of the shared resources that has been an object of conflict in Kenya.

In his discussion of the Afar-Somali conflict in Ethiopia and Djibouti, Yasin Mohammad Yasin identifies cattle raids as a long-standing source of conflict between the Afar and the Issa/Somali. Livestock raiding is linked to social obligations of paying bride price as well as a rite of passage into adulthood. However, while cattle raiding is a long-standing tradition, its nature has changed from one of redistribution to that of predatory raiding. Moreover, the proliferation of firearms in the region makes cattle raiding increasingly violent, though some observers contest this notion. However, notwithstanding violent raiding, cattle trade can also be seen as a promoter of peace and cooperation.

After all, the cattle trade serves to keep community-level relations alive even as border conflict and instability at the community level has increased in the post-colonial period. Moreover, trading relationships can contribute to diminishing the importance of clan divisions, as traders collaborate with each other across clan barriers.

Finally, traditional methods of social organization within and between pastoralist communities including reciprocity, negotiation, and shared risk management can contribute to peace in the region. Nonetheless, increases in the number of livestock may, under certain circumstances, result in increases in the likelihood of conflict.

The United Nations Development Group and Executive Committee on Humanitarian Affairs notes that increased livestock production can intensify competition between communities for land or other resources. Conversely, having fewer cattle may reduce the economic incentive for violent cattle raiding. However, Oxfam notes that the number of livestock in East Africa has remained constant due to sickness, flooding and drought, while the human population has grown, resulting in a situation where more pastoralists rely on fewer livestock. While this may serve as a disincentive for violent cattle raiding, it also has negative impacts on food security and livelihoods.

In addition to being an objective of violence through violent cattle raids, livestock can be targeted as a strategy of war. While livestock is listed among civilian objects necessary for survival that are protected by international humanitarian law from military attack, it has been used as a means of control and subjugation by al-Shabaab, which imposed taxation on livestock on the population under its control in South-Central Somalia. However, information on Al-Shabaab activity is incomplete. An earlier report indicated that Al-Shabaab were not routinely collecting tax on livestock, but were rather competing with livestock trade for youth labor.

This highlights the importance of robust livelihoods as a means of increasing the opportunity cost of engaging in conflict; higher incomes from legal activities, like livestock trade, make it more difficult for al-Shabaab to compete as a livelihood option.

Pastoralist methods of coping and adaptation

Coping and adaptation are not synonymous. As mentioned above, pastoralism as a way of living has evolved and adapted to dry and harsh conditions, with coping mechanisms being temporary, and sometimes negative, methods of dealing with temporary extremes. However, while the environmental conditions have become more and more extreme, traditional coping mechanisms to environmental stress, such as pastoralists traveling further distances, may not be feasible anymore. Moreover, the application of inappropriate development policies, including a push towards settling communities, has reduced available grazing land and negatively impacted productivity.

These development policies may also undermine customary water and grazing management techniques and thus trigger rangeland degradation. Conflict can also restrict the movement of pastoralists, as rangelands and travel routes previously used become unsafe or closed. Apart from increased mobility, other methods of coping include livestock drawdown. In Ethiopia, this acts as a way of income diversification. However, because livestock is often sold as a response to drought, it is sold in poor condition and at a time when many others are also selling, so prices are depressed. However, if livestock drawdown was done in a more planned and strategic manner, it could be an adaptation method rather than a coping mechanism.

Anne Nyatichi Omambia of the Kenyan National Environmental Management Authority together with Ceven Shemsanga of Tumaini University in Tanzania argue that reducing the number of livestock is the single most important adaptation method for pastoralists, if fewer heads is compensated for by having healthier, more productive breeds.

Drawdown is also linked to conflict, but it is unclear how the relationship operates. USAID notes that the selling of livestock can indicate either increased peace, as it indicates that people are investing into cultivation, which is more permanent than livestock rearing, or increased conflict, if people are selling livestock in preparation for moving across terrain or across borders.

Case 2: Water

Water is a key element connecting conflict, climate and gender, but as with livestock, there are few if any simple mechanisms linking the three. The gendered use of and access to water is one of the most oft-cited examples of how climate change affects men and women differently. Water is also described as a trigger for conflict, with “water wars” being predicted to be the next large inter-state wars as well as pastoralist conflicts explained as being caused by competition over water.

Climate change is also projected to affect freshwater availability. Of these, the gendered use of water has a stronger evidence base, though it is also not as simplistic as it is often described, while water being a trigger of conflict is in fact poorly evidenced, and climate change can make freshwater less or more available, depending on geographic location and mechanisms available for collecting water.

Gender and water

Statements on gendered roles and responsibilities with regards to water are often made but rarely supported by robust evidence. For example, the GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice Network – writes that in East Africa, women can spend up to 27 percent of their daily caloric intake on collecting water; however, the source for this information is not identified.

UNICEF’s Multi-Indicator Cluster Surveys from 35 developing countries do indicate that women are more than twice as likely as men to fetch drinking water, although men’s responsibility is not insignificant as 25 percent of households indicate that men carry the primary responsibility of fetching water. According to this survey, in Ethiopia women are the prime bearers of responsibility for water in 82 percent of households, and girls are the main collectors in a further 9 percent. However, it is unclear whether the survey takes into account water needs of livestock, and the role of men in meeting these needs.

In any case, it makes sense that since women are usually the primary responsibility-holders for water collection, when women are involved in water projects, the level of success of the projects is much higher; a World Bank evaluation of 122 projects showed that projects where women were involved were six to seven times more effective than those projects where women were not involved. This shows again the strength of the CVA approach in recognizing coexisting vulnerabilities and capacities: women and girls suffer the most from the lack of water and sanitation (vulnerability) and they also have the knowledge and experience that is needed to remedy this lack (capacity).

Women living in refugee camps face serious problems while retrieving water and firewood. Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN.

Men and women both face threats when retrieving water, particularly in conflict areas. The rape and assault of women and girls retrieving water and firewood is common in refugee camps and surrounding areas. Meanwhile, if men have to cross into foreign or hostile territory, they may be in danger of being victims of violence. Again, this is a case of coexisting vulnerability and capacity; at the same time, men and women may know places to retrieve water and be able to get it (capacity) but they may be subject to violence when doing so (vulnerability).

A well-planned development intervention will incorporate both of these elements so as to reduce the risk of violence while using all of the on-the-ground knowledge that men and women possess.

Climate and water

In terms of the impact of climate change on freshwater availability, there are no simple conclusions to be made. Climate change may change the precipitation patterns in eastern Africa. However, the effects of climate change on drought and other extreme hydrological events are difficult to predict because of the ocean-driven internal variability linked to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon and the confounding role of human-induced land cover change.

However, despite the above-mentioned drought, East Africa has had a relatively stable rainfall regime throughout the 20th century with some evidence of recent wetting. The relationship between ENSO and eastern equatorial Africa is such that there is high rainfall during the September–November “short rains” when there is a warm ENSO period.

In the future, eastern Africa will face changes in seasonal rainfall: under the low-emission B1 scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) parts of eastern equatorial Africa are predicted to have 5–30 percent higher rainfall between December and February (DJF) and up to 5–10 percent less rainfall between June and August (JJA). Under the higher A2 scenario, the variability is more pronounced, with DJF increases of 50–100 percent in parts of East Africa and significant JJA decreases in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia).

This increase in seasonal variability highlights the importance of an adequate water storage and distribution infrastructure to support populations through the dry season. This infrastructure will be beneficial even if the predictions turn out to be inaccurate; precipitation forecasts for the region are made with little confidence.

Moreover, climate change or even other environmental factors are not the only drivers of scarcity or availability of water. Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia are not water-stressed according to the renewable freshwater resources to consumption ratio. Accordingly, the map below shows that Sub-Saharan Africa does not have a problem of physical scarcity of water, but rather suffers from economic scarcity, which is a result of a lack of investment in water or a lack of human capacity to satisfy the demand for water.

Of course, the developmental impacts of this economic scarcity are devastating: in Somalia in 2010, only 29 percent of the population had access to an improved drinking water source while in Ethiopia the corresponding figure is 44 percent and for Kenya, 59 percent.

Meanwhile, water-borne disease is the reason behind nearly 20 percent of deaths in children under the age of 5 in Somalia. Thus, regardless of climate change, there is a clear need to invest in the water distribution infrastructure in a way that ensures access to all members of all communities. The impacts of climate change need to be taken into account when designing such systems; in particular, building in flexibility so that a system can withstand intensified variability of rainfall.

Map. Areas of physical and economic water scarcity Source: Comprehensive Assesment of Water Management in Agriculture (2007), 11.

Conflict and water

As for the link between water and conflict, there are similarities to the debates on climate change and conflict. Once again, despite popular headlines on “water wars”, evidence pointing to such conflict is scant, and even those academics, including Homer-Dixon, who once predicted such causal relationships, have toned down their arguments. Indeed, on the international level, water seems to catalyze cooperation rather than the escalation of conflict.

Of course, triggers for local level conflict may differ from those for interstate conflict. However, even on the local level it is far from clear that scarcity would cause conflict. Karen Witsenburg and Wario Adano, who have conducted extensive, detailed research on climate and conflict in Kenya, examine short-term climate variability in the Marsabit district of northern Kenya and conclude that more violent deaths occurred in wet years than in drought years, and fewer people died in wet years following drought years than in wet years in general. The explanation that herdsmen offered for this pattern was that it is more rational to cooperate during droughts in order to ensure survival.

However, what should be remembered is that regardless of whether water scarcity causes conflict or not, the lack of available, adequate, affordable and clean water is a major development issue: globally, more than a billion people lack access to safe water supplies, almost three billion lack access to adequate sanitation, and five to ten million people die each year from water-related diseases or inadequate sanitation.

The drudgery associated with obtaining water inhibits productive activities, education and leisure time, which precludes fundamental development gains. Whether the lack of water causes violence or conflict or not, at any level, the issue is so severe that investment in water availability should be perceived as vital without securitizing the issue. Conflict makes the situation worse by diverting funds away from investment in water infrastructure and making the obtaining of water more dangerous and difficult. Water can also become a tool, target, or victim of warfare, rather than a cause.

Overall, while development in the water sector should be conflict-sensitive in order to avoid any unintended consequences and to maximize the potential for cooperation, water as a source of conflict is not the key reason to become engaged.

Conclusion

The cases of livestock and water show that while climate change, conflict and gender inequality have overlapping and sometimes mutually exacerbating impacts, causal links are rare, and often overstated and oversimplified. This serves as a caution against focusing on causal mechanisms when designing effective programming, and against narrow views of certain groups as “vulnerable”. It also offers a more hopeful and less fatalistic view of the Horn of Africa: despite popular claims of catastrophe, chaos and conflict arising as a result of climate change, these outcomes can be avoided if governments and development partners in the region focus on developing political, social and economic systems that enable citizens to utilize the adaptive mechanisms that already exist, and invest in infrastructure that enables societies to meet the needs of each citizen.

In order to do so, climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and conflict prevention initiatives must work hand in hand to prevent unintended consequences across sectors. The responsibility for a peaceful, resilient society is a shared one; let’s not use climate change as a scapegoat for man-made inequality and conflict.

Laura Sundblad

The author is pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. She will graduate in May 2014. At Columbia, she is concentrating in Energy and Environment with the objective of a career in international development focusing on climate change adaptation. Comments and questions are welcome at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is based on a section of a forthcoming report prepared by the author for the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery of the United Nations Development Programme. All opinions and views stated are those of the author and do not represent the United Nations Development Programme in any capacity.

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