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Examining Environmental Links to Peace and Conflict in Sudan: The UN Environment Programme's Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment

Efforts to end the ongoing violence in Darfur and build on the 2005 peace agreement must consider how environmental problems such as deforestation, drought, and desertification affect the balance between peace and conflict.

Date & Time

Sep. 21, 2007
10:00am – 12:00pm ET


Efforts to end the ongoing violence in Darfur and build on the 2005 peace agreement between Northern and Southern Sudan must consider how environmental problems such as deforestation, drought, and desertification affect the balance between peace and conflict. In their discussion of the UN Environment Programme's groundbreaking Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment at an Environmental Change and Security Program-sponsored event on September 21, 2007, UNEP's Ibrahim Thiaw and Andrew Morton described the tragic links between conflict and environmental degradation in Sudan--but also expressed hope that it is headed for a more stable and prosperous future. "The environment can contribute to peacebuilding in the country," asserted Thiaw.

Environment-Conflict Links

Conducted at the invitation of the Government of National Unity and the Government of Southern Sudan, the assessment was carried out between December 2005 and March 2007 by a group of international scientists. In collaboration with local and international partners, including other UN agencies, UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch (PCDMB) conducted extensive field research—including more than 2,000 consultations with experts and local and international stakeholders—to compile the 354-page report.

PCDMB's assessment team found the links between conflict and environmental damage run in two directions. Armed conflict's primary direct impact on the environment—the targeted destruction of forests in Darfur—is not as severe as its indirect environmental impacts, which include population displacement, unsustainable resource exploitation, and minimal investment in sustainable development.

Conflict can have negative consequences for the environment, but environmental problems can also contribute to conflict. The scarcity of certain natural resources—and in some cases, their unsustainable use—has increased the likelihood of conflict. Competition over oil and gas reserves, forests, and water have at times turned violent. Furthermore, tension between farmers and pastoralists over land use has led to violent conflict—as in Darfur, where environmental degradation is one of several factors contributing to the violence. As Thiaw noted, "One of the root causes of the conflict is access to natural resources."

Deforestation and Desertification

According to the Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, many of Sudan's natural resources are being degraded at an alarming rate. The country's forests are among its most crucial—and most severely depleted—resources. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the forestry sector accounts for up to 13 percent of the country's GDP. Forests provide rural Sudanese with food, medicinal plants, and land for grazing and hunting. However, 8,835,000 hectares (or 11.6 percent) of Sudan's total forest cover was destroyed between 1990 and 2005. This percentage is even higher (approximately 33 percent) in Darfur.

Deforestation is only one threat facing Sudan's land. Population displacement, unsustainable agricultural practices, and climate change have all contributed to desertification, which the report calls Sudan's most severe environmental problem. Sudan has the largest population of displaced persons in the world; there are more than 2.4 million internally displaced persons in Darfur alone, and the total number of internally displaced persons and international refugees comes to nearly 5 million. Displaced persons rely on the areas surrounding refugee camps for firewood, food, and water. As a result, the areas around these overcrowded camps often become so barren that they can accurately be described as "scorched earth," said Morton.

Land in Sudan has traditionally been managed communally, but population displacement due to decades of violence means many areas no longer possess viable, cohesive communities. Consequently, environmental degradation is often at its worst in areas where armed conflict has displaced communities. Morton explained that the ambiguous state of land ownership rights in Sudan is an additional obstacle blocking the path to sustainability: "They have not successfully made the transition from traditional land-based mechanisms through to formal titles. It's extremely complicated because you have lots of transitory occupation of land." Unresolved land tenure issues impede the implementation of more comprehensive environmental governance—an important milestone toward maintaining peace in Sudan.

Heavy reliance on rain-fed agriculture has degraded significant portions of Sudan's fertile land, and has also led to the clearing of massive amounts of forest. Furthermore, Sudan's burgeoning livestock population—which grew from 28.6 million animals in 1961 to 134.6 million animals in 2004—has severely overgrazed much of the country's rangeland.

Global climate change is also playing a significant role in the degradation of Sudan's environment. Rainfall in Northern Darfur has decreased more than 30 percent over the past 50 years, turning millions of hectares of semi-desert grazing land into desert. Thiaw explained that due to desertification, "competition for access to water, grazing land, and farming land is accelerating in the northern part of the country." The authors of the Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment also cite a 2003 UN-supported study that predicts that decreasing precipitation could cause yields for crops such as sorghum and millet to fall as much as 20-70 percent in some regions of Sudan.

Darfur: The Perfect Storm

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur is the product of numerous interconnected factors, including poverty, ethnic and religious tensions, population growth and displacement, and environmental degradation. Until relatively recently, pastoralists and farmers in Darfur shared limited land and water resources with a considerable degree of success. According to the report, however, population pressures have increased tensions between the two groups, and traditional mechanisms for resolving disputes have broken down. "Northern Darfur—where exponential population growth and related environmental stress have created the conditions for conflicts to be triggered and sustained by political, tribal or ethnic differences—can be considered a tragic example of the social breakdown that can result from ecological collapse. Long-term peace in the region will not be possible unless these underlying and closely linked environmental and livelihood issues are resolved," says the report's Executive Summary.

Positive Signs

Despite the looming catastrophe these environmental trends seem to imply, Morton highlighted several promising developments in Sudan. Much of the country is currently at peace, oil revenue is bolstering the economy, and Sudan's governments have shown a willingness to pursue environmental sustainability initiatives. For example, the report found rising political and practical support for addressing natural resource and environmental governance issues in both the Government of National Unity and the Government of Southern Sudan. Moreover, the assessment team found strong recognition of environmental issues by Sudanese citizens. People are aware of environmental problems, but dire circumstances often drive them to choose unsustainable consumption patterns that guarantee their own survival over long-term conservation of resources.

Even though many resources have been depleted due to conflict, poor land management, and a booming population, major forest and wildlife resources still exist in the southern part of the country. Morton called the biodiversity and lush ecosystems in many parts of Southern Sudan "one of the world's great wonders."

From Analysis to Action

The authors of the Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment offer 85 detailed recommendations for environmental sustainability efforts in Sudan, most aimed at the governments of Sudan. The recommendations focus on: convincing the Sudanese governments and international institutions to invest in sustainable livelihoods and environmental management as conflict-prevention strategies; encouraging the Sudanese governments to assume greater financial responsibility for these initiatives; and integrating environmental considerations into all UN relief and development projects in the country.

Going into an unusually high level of detail, the Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment provides individual cost and time estimates for the recommendations and notes specific Sudanese government ministries, nongovernmental organizations, and UN agencies well-suited to carry out each recommendation. If implemented fully, the plan would cost approximately $120 million over five years. UNEP contends that acting on the findings of the report is necessary if Sudan is to achieve a sustainable and peaceful future. "Now is the perfect time for integrating sustainable development principles into the recovery of the majority of Sudan," said Thiaw.

Drafted by Miles Brundage and edited by Rachel Weisshaar.


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Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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