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COVID-19 and climate change are a perfect storm for violent conflict

COVID-19 and climate change are a perfect storm for violent conflict
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The massive wildfires that have ravaged the Pacific Northwest of the United States in recent weeks are a stark reminder that climate change has not paused for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On the contrary. The global impact of COVID-19 is already combining with climate change to affect millions of the most vulnerable people in the world, including complicating evacuation efforts after natural disasters. These negative impacts continue to reinforce each other around the world, creating new drivers of violent conflict in fragile settings, a perfect storm of risk. 

Governments need to deliver a unified response based on an understanding of how the impacts of climate and COVID-19 are combining to create heightened risks of conflict.

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The pandemic has affected both rich and poor countries alike, but for those already struggling with poverty, COVID-19 is creating new risks of instability. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, severe movement restrictions during the pandemic have combined with existing food insecurity that was already at record levels due to droughts, flooding and pest infestation. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, the pandemic is hitting especially hard in communities that were already suffering from serious loss of livelihoods due to shifting rainfall patterns, extreme weather and desertification. In the Horn of Africa, emergency responses to address rising COVID-19 cases have shifted resources away from pesticides to maintain crops in the face of massive locust infestations.

Climate change has also been contributing to trends of urbanization in many parts of the world. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have left agricultural land in the Sahel due to a combination of climate-driven factors and growing economic opportunities in cities, leading to a population explosion in many West African cities. In Bangladesh, roughly 400,000 people arrive in Dhaka every year, nearly 90 percent of whom cite environmental changes as the reason for their relocation. Poor, densely populated urban areas have proven to be prime breeding grounds for COVID-19. 

In areas already affected by violence, one of the most important adaptation strategies is migration, with vulnerable populations fleeing dangerous areas, but this too has been complicated and heightened by COVID-19. A new forecasting software developed by the Danish Refugee Council has predicted that more than 1 million people could flee their homes across the Sahel as a result of shrinking livelihoods and increasing conflict brought on by the fallout from COVID-19 as well as climate change impacts. In the Lake Chad area, for example, hundreds of thousands of conflict-displaced people are migrating in order to receive life-saving humanitarian assistance and avoid conflict. Movement restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, however, have blocked off this escape and relief route. In Lebanon, tight curfews on Syrian refugees have limited their ability to receive health care and limit the spread of the virus. And the phenomenon of “reverse migration” — in which millions of migrants return home to avoid being stranded overseas during the pandemic — has meant new tensions over scarce resources have emerged or intensified in various contexts, from Senegal to India and Nepal.

COVID-19 has proven an unexpected boon for rebel armed groups around the world, many of which have found ways to turn it to their advantage. Similarly, Boko Haram has used the pandemic as another rallying cry for recruitment, including in areas where climate change has contributed to a significant downturn in livelihoods. In these settings, the combination of climate-induced socioeconomic vulnerability and the negative impact of the pandemic is driving further armed group activity.

A major risk today is that national governments treat COVID-19 and the impacts of climate change separately, rather than as a set of combined risks. Shifting resources from programs supporting livelihoods to programs delivering medical care may make sense at first glance, but ignores the interrelated nature of these crises. Instead, governments need to be ready to make additional and long-term investments that focus on promoting more resilient livelihoods affected by climate change, strengthening health systems, expanding social safety nets and addressing exclusion and marginalization. Lessons from previous outbreaks such as Ebola point to the importance of broad responses that go beyond medical provision to address wider implications such as food security, livelihoods and education.

Governments also need to work within and strengthen international responses, drawing on the contributions of civil society, businesses, academia and other sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic can be yet another opportunity to look at how interconnected risks, including those created by climate change, can contribute to insecurity and conflict, and to think of multi-sector and inclusive approaches to build back better. Let’s not waste it.

Beatrice Mosello is a senior project manager at adelphi and one of the authors of Spreading Disease, Spreading Conflict? COVID-19, Climate Change and Security Risks. Adam Day is director of Programmes at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research and lead author of Conflict Prevention in the Era of Climate Change: Adapting the UN to Climate-Security Risks.