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Kid looking at landscape in yemen


Climate change and conflict: a perfect humanitarian storm

Published 5 April 2022 in Sustainability • 5 min read

Focusing efforts on helping communities to adapt and ensuring climate finance gets to conflict zones is essential, says ICRC Director-General.

A scramble for resources, like farming land and water, will worsen the humanitarian crisis in conflict-affected countries, warned the Director-General of the ICRC, as he urged more action and funding to prevent the world’s most vulnerable losing their homes due to the devastating combination of climate change and armed conflict.

“Without decisive support from the international community, what is happening now in conflict and climate-affected countries like Mali, Afghanistan and Yemen will only get worse. And similar crises will multiply in many other places,” Robert Mardini told the alumni club of Lausanne in an event held on IMD’s campus last week.

The crisis is particularly acute in the Sahel region in Africa where climate hazards have already damaged around 80% of the region’s farmlands, according to the UN, dramatically reducing food sources. Already some 29 million people in the Sahel are reported to need humanitarian assistance and protection, and the crisis is expected to worsen as the population doubles to over 190 million people by 2050.

In Mali, the Sahara Desert makes up two-thirds of the country and continues to expand, submerging villages and livelihoods. With rainfall becoming increasingly unpredictable, people are fleeing both conflict and extreme weather events like floods and droughts.

Bamako by the river
View of Bamako and the Niger River in Mali

Mardini gave the example of a young widow who had witnessed her husband get shot and burned alive during a massacre in her village. She managed to escape with her three children – only to see her new home collapse in unusually heavy rains. In another case, a 17-year-old cattle herder was almost killed by an explosive device as he went in search of water for his family’s livestock.

“Mali – needless to say – is far from a unique case,” said Mardini. “Across the Sahel – which also includes Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania – we see connected and overlapping crises. These are rooted in a combination of escalating conflict, increasing food insecurity, and accelerating climate change.”

Countries ravaged by conflict, also lack the economic resources and essential services to adapt to climate change, for example by modifying their farming methods, or changing livelihoods altogether.

In Afghanistan, more than four decades of conflict have paralyzed the economy and caused essential services to crumble, while successive droughts have disrupted harvests and led to widespread malnutrition, among both young children and adults.

“There is no doubt that people living in countries affected by conflict are among the most vulnerable to the climate crisis – globally. While these countries have done the least to contribute to global warming, they are also the ones most neglected in terms of appropriate funding and support. This needs to change – urgently.”

So what can be done to help those on the frontlines of conflict and climate change?

Yemen village
Yemeni village of Arrjaz and its crops

Intensify efforts to help communities adapt

While a lot of attention is focused on how to mitigate climate change, those already suffering from the consequences of extreme weather need help to adapt now. The ICRC is doing this in the Sahel by assisting farmers and herders to rehabilitate irrigation schemes, stabilizing advancing dunes, and supporting the storage and production of animal feed. Elsewhere, in Rakhine State, Myanmar, it is improving rainwater catchment and storage, better conserving water and reducing the risk of waterborne diseases.

To ensure that the ICRC can continue to effectively deliver humanitarian aid, it also needs to gain a better understanding of short and longer-term environmental risks so it can develop appropriate programs and adapt its response, said Mardini.

Mobilize support to ensure that climate finance gets to conflict settings

The scale of the challenge is too great to be tackled alone. Without ambitious climate mitigation and adaptation, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid each year due to climate change, could double by 2050, with financial costs ballooning to $20 billion per year, according to the IFRC.

The creation of the Climate and Environment Charter for humanitarian organizations, which has been signed by more than 220 humanitarian organizations across the world, is designed to steer humanitarian action more effectively to cope with the impact of climate change.

Beyond the sector, Mardini said it was vital to mobilize those who are best placed to ensure that climate action and finance reach communities affected by conflict. This includes national and local authorities, international financial institutions and the private sector.

red cross bus and staff
“To ensure that the ICRC can continue to effectively deliver humanitarian aid, it also needs to gain a better understanding of short and longer-term environmental risks so it can develop appropriate programs and adapt its response”
- Robert Mardini

Close the gap between words and action

While some new commitments to increase adaptation finance for the most vulnerable countries were announced at COP26, a stronger political will is needed to support hard-to-reach and insecure communities who are at the frontlines of the climate crisis.

“There is still a huge gap between words and action when it comes to commitments on climate action and climate finance. In principle, states are committed to reach the most vulnerable. In practice, they are often left behind,” Mardini said.

Create humanitarian exemptions to work in sanctioned countries

Many of the countries affected by climate change and conflict are on sanctions lists, especially if they are harbouring armed groups. In the Q&A session, Mardini called for more humanitarian carve-outs, such as those adopted in December 2021 for Afghanistan, which help facilitate humanitarian response in places where sanctions are in force.

“We can’t only help communities living in areas controlled by governments, and not those in areas controlled by armed groups,” said Mardini.  “That would be a double punishment, as very often basic government services do not reach areas controlled by non-state armed groups.”


Robert Mardini

Director-General of the ICRC

Robert Mardini is Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), responsible for steering the organization’s global humanitarian activities and its 20,000 staff in more than 100 countries. Robert began his ICRC career in 1997, going on to serve as Deputy Director-General in 2010-2012, Regional Director for the Near & Middle East from 2012-2018 and Permanent Observer to the United Nations and Head of Delegation in New York from 2018-2020.


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