current affairs development environment politics poverty

Environmental factors in the Darfur conflict

Darfur has fallen off the news agenda in recent months, but Sudan is far from stable. I was reading a document recently that reminded me of it, Tearfund’s ‘Relief in a vulnerable environment‘ report. Darfur has been described as the world’s first climate change conflict, and while I don’t think it’s technically the first, it certainly is a conflict that has been exacerbated by climate change.

Sudan has been embroiled in a series of wars since its independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. It has been divided along north and south lines, Arab and African ethnic lines, and nomadic and settled lifestyles. Although Darfur is the most high profile, there are several other simmering conflicts within the country.

Environmentally, there are several factors that are playing into the tensions:

Natural disasters
First of all, there are factors beyond human control. Rainfall is hugely variable across the region, meaning unpredictable growing seasons and extreme weather events – more frequent droughts, and simultaneously, more frequent floods. Sudan now expects one in every five years to be a drought year, with the crop failure and lifestock loss that follow. If dry years come to quickly after each other, the land doesn’t even get a chance to recover. The riverbeds that many people rely on for water all year round are not replenished, and the people are forced to move off their land.

In such dry conditions, floods wouldn’t be something you’d think of, but Sudan is a large and diverse country, and last year saw some of the most serious floods seen in Africa in a long time. In some cases, refugee camps were flooded, moving displaced people on again.

Droughts intensify desertification, another serious problem. Barren landscapes reflect heat, dissipating clouds, and creating a vicious circle that makes rainfall even less likely. Slowly, arable land dries up beyond redemption, and villages are swallowed by the dust. The UN identified desertification as the most serious environmental problem in Sudan last year, in a controversial report.

Environmental management
Secondly, and very much linked to the first set, are environmental problems brought on by poor management or ignorance. Once issue here is resource depletion, and one of the most serious resources in Sudan is wood. Southern Sudan is actually covered in rich forest, while the north remains barren. Consequently, wood and charcoal are key industries in the South, and trucks carry wood fuel north. Deforestation is occurring at 0.8% a year, adding to the threat of further desertification.

People also need wood for building. Sudan has more internally displaced people than anywhere else, with 5 million refugees waiting to go home. Tearfund have worked out that each returning family would need 30-40 trees to rebuild their houses and fences. Multiply that 30-40 across 5 million, and the landscape just doesn’t have enough trees to support the people.

Another environmental management issue is over-farming. In places where the land is fertile, large-scale farms have developed. Unfortunately, these farms are run for quick profit, with little thought for future generations. Crops are not rotated, meaning yields gradually drop away. When the land is spent, the wealthy farmers move their tractors on, clearing new land and beginning the process again. This also feeds deforestation and desertification.

If that wasn’t enough, you also have farming lifestyles to contend with. Over 40% of Sudan is grazing land, with nomadic herders moving their cattle or camels to follow the rains, and selling them in the cities, or in Egypt or Libya. These nomadic tribes have followed the same migration routes for years, but because of changing rainfall patterns, possibly the result of climate change, those routes are suddenly in question. Similarly, the herders never ventured too far south, as their cattle became susceptible to disease. The changing climate has moved the disease line, meaning herders are entering territory where they haven’t been before, and where they aren’t trusted. Previously, age-old traditions allowed them to pass through, and tribal chiefs laid arranged between them which wells or rivers could be used and which ones couldn’t. As herders are forced to try out unfamiliar routes, they find themselves blocked or forbidden to use certain lands or water sources. Their cattle or camels are then kept too long in one place, meaning the land is overgrazed, and water sources are depleted.

The environment as a weapon
Finally, and most depressingly, the Darfur conflict has seen the environment used against rivals, compounding all the above problems. In some cases, herders have been deliberately blocked, as I just mentioned. In revenge, herders may chase the people from the villages, and cut down the trees. Without fruit trees, or nitrogen-fixing trees, the refugees are unable to return to their lands. By abusing the forestry, tribes have been able to render people’s traditional lands unliveable.

It isn’t just the nomadic tribesmen who maliciously cut down trees either – sometimes the settled tribes will cut down the large shade trees on the migration routes, crucial resting points where cattle are able to take refuge from the midday sun. Without the shade trees, the migration routes become unusable.

There is also conflict between camel herders and cattlemen, and again, the land suffers. If the land is burned the lack of vegetation means cattle can’t cross it, but camels can, with their ability to survive longer in harsh conditions. At times lands have been torched to drive cattle herders off, monopolising the area for the camel herders.

All of these various factors are interlinked. Bad management or short-termist farming practices, and deliberately destructive acts, all damage the environment and aggravate the existing natural phenomena. Sudan is a hugely complicated country, and there is no one cause for the conflicts, but there is little doubt that changing climate is a factor, and land use is another. As such, it stands as something of a warning of what can happen when the land can no longer support its people.

“Sudan’s tragedy is not just the tragedy of one country in Africa,” says Achim Steiner of UNEP.  “It is a window to a wider world, underlining how issues such as uncontrolled depletion of natural resources like soils and forests, allied to impacts like climate change, can destabilise communities, even entire nations.”

  • For more on this difficult issue, and some potential solutions, see Tearfund’s report. (pdf)
  • Sudan has oil, so serious money is being made even in the middle of the chaos. To make sure your money isn’t implicated, see our article Divest for Darfur.
  • If you want to give, consider Tearfund’s latest appeal, or Practical Action.If you’ve been involved in Sudan and know any further sources of information or research, please leave a comment.


  1. Where do the displaced people of Sudan go, aside from neighboring countries? I would like to know if any are in New York. Is there any way of finding this out?

  2. Most Sudanese refugees end up in the neighboring countries, in Chad, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, South Africa, but some travel much further. Several hundred file for refugee status in the UK every year, so I expect the same is true in the US.
    I don’t know about New York, but there will certainly be Sudanese people there, maybe a local support network or something. The Sudanese embassy in the US may be able to help:
    I also remember hearing about a Sudanese church in Des Moines. They would be able to tell you more about the diaspora in the US:

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