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Environment, relief and conflict in Darfur

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:15


Brendan Bromwich, Independent Environmental Consultant


Dr Margie Buchanan Smith, Independent Researcher


Sorcha O'Callaghan, Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Sorcha O’Callaghan, in the chair, introduced the speaker, Brendan Bromwich, and discussant, Margie Buchanan Smith, whom she noted had both just returned from three weeks in Darfur studying livelihoods for Tufts University. She also commented on the renewed focus on the effects of climate change in the region.

Brendan Bromwich

Brendan Bromwich began by explaining the environmental situation in Darfur. He highlighted the fact that there are a number of differing regional environments, from deserts and highlands to flood plains and sub-tropical lowlands. Bromwich also noted that there are different livelihoods and different tribes within Darfur. Furthermore, he stated that there are two levels to the current conflict, which operates both at the tribal/environment/livelihood level and at the political level.

He went on to say that, from an environmental perspective, Darfur is very vulnerable, being on the edge of a desert, which affects:
a. rainfall – there is low rainfall, which is declining; the frequency of dry years is increasing (farmers have noticed this since the 1980s)
b. geology – this does not store water well, thus increasing the problem
c. vegetation – livelihoods are dependent on vegetation

Bromwich discussed how ‘wadis’ (seasonal water deposits, such as dry riverbeds that contain water during times of heavy rain) may be difficult to reach, owing to the insecurity in Darfur. He went on to state that the areas north and south of the Sahel do not suffer large environmental variations, however the Sahel belt itself suffers from much more variation in environmental conditions.

He went on to state that the impacts of the current conflict have included:
a. destruction of crops
b. deforestation
c. traditional environmental management practices have been interrupted
d. the blocking of migration routes
e. trees on farmland have been destroyed, undermining tenure
f. a short-term perspective on livelihoods (e.g. brick making as opposed to mango farming)

He then outlined some of the impacts of the massive displacement of people:
a. massive concentration of demand in specific areas
b. a relief programme with new levels of technology and standards of supply
c. localised resource depletion (wood and water)
d. increased construction with the need for more raw materials

Bromwich noted the environmental implications of the post-conflict recovery:
a. the reconstruction of villages would require the use of 30-40 mature trees per family
b. sustainable resource management needs to be assured
c. equitable environmental governance has to be restored in a way that will be able to deal with future droughts

He went on to acknowledge that Darfur is already suffering the effects of climate change, because marginal environments such as the Sahel are affected the most. This has already led to the increased frequency of droughts and a reduction in the length of the growing season.

He stated that in order to adapt to climate change there are several challenges that need to be addressed:
a. technology transfer (e.g. water resource management)
b. human capital – health and education to enable new livelihoods to be developed in communities
c. physical capital – infrastructure
d. social capital – security, environmental management, good governance
e. natural capital – shelter belts, protected forestry, well managed rangeland

Bromwich went on to say that environmental mitigation needs to be effectively integrated into the humanitarian programme through:
a. project design and staffing
b. contextual analysis around livelihoods
c. strategic leadership in programming and coordination

He went on to stress that peace-building work that reflects the complexity of the conflict and the environment in which it takes place is also essential.

He concluded by highlighting some lessons:
a. conflict destroys both assets and institutions
b. the importance of environmental governance and engagement with all livelihood groups
c. long-term processes should inform the humanitarian response – contextual analysis and strategic planning

Margie Buchanan Smith

Margie Buchanan Smith acknowledged the importance of drawing attention to environmental issues in Darfur, which she stated were crucial to the ongoing humanitarian response.

She stated that Bromwich’s report was welcome because:
a. it takes a long-term/historical perspective on a current issue, using data and analysis dating back to the 1970s and 80s
b. it uses local-level expertise and resources
c. it combines local-level analysis and knowledge with higher-level debates (e.g. about climate change)
d. it communicates these findings at a local level and beyond in ways that can be applied

Buchanan Smith explained that this was important because local knowledge and expertise are not being adequately listened to, either in Darfur, or outside. There is also a disconnect between some of the debates that are happening at higher levels, and the reality on the ground.

She explained that competition for environmental resources is one of the many drivers of the conflict and is continuing to be a key feature of how the conflict is playing out, most obviously where there are heavy population concentrations, including where there are lots of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and around towns, over essential natural resources, especially water and firewood. Such conflict is also associated with some of the worst forms of violence including Gender Based Violence (GBV). Over-grazing of resources has also become a newer and very prominent feature of the conflict in South Darfur. Understanding this is key, both to the humanitarian response, and to peace-building efforts.

She went on to discuss the challenges for livelihood support interventions in this context, stating that the biggest challenge is where the largest concentrations of IDPs are, and around towns, explaining that brick-making is an environmental disaster.

Following a recent series of livelihood workshops, some ideas that emerged about how to tackle the conflict were:
a. it is not just a question of re-distributing assets, although that is important, e.g. seeds and tools
b. need to ensure that IDPs have access to markets as traders in towns
c. food aid is still a key resource – both as a source of food and as an income transfer, and it has kept the grain markets going, with some IDPs becoming petty traders. For this reason, recent reports about food aid rations being cut are very concerning.

Buchanan Smith then discussed the recovery in the longer term:

a. need to pay attention to what hasn’t worked in the past and what factors have contributed to the conflict, e.g. a breakdown in environmental governance
b. need to pay attention to groups that have been marginalised and have grievances (especially over access to resources) that were not addressed, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation
c. recovery, when it happens, will be a long-term process of reconstruction and rehabilitation, and an even longer process of reconciliation, which will take a couple of generations
d. learn from the experiences of other parts of South, especially in South Kordofan – careful and sensitive work needs to happen on the ground, fostering dialogue and reconciliation
e. the aid community is not well experienced in long-term, sustained commitments but it has to play a part in this process
f. drought will always be a fact of life in Darfur, and may worsen as a result of climate change

Environmental management and governance has to play a part in drought management and vice versa. We can learn from the experiences of the 1980s and 90s in this regard, e.g.:
a. to include greater political analysis
b. to include local level and fast responses
c. longer-term investment for a sustainable future in Darfur

She concluded with several further points for discussion:
a. there is a huge need for joined up thinking – livelihoods, environment, protection. How can we keep encouraging that approach, despite the tendency to ‘specialise’?
b. the crisis in Darfur is entrenched - no immediate answers or solutions are on the horizon so there is no room for short-termism. How should we encourage more informed, longer-term thinking around the humanitarian response?
c. this all indicates a need for much more strategic thinking and planning
d. how to bridge the gap between the complex reality on the ground (how resources are used/fought over and changing alliances) and higher level discussions around the peace process.


Points and questions raised in the discussion included:

- What is the role of the government in national resource management? Bromwich replied that the current high profile attached to international measures can be counter-productive in that it can lead to local and national issues being ignored. Bromwich stated that there needs to be a corresponding emphasis on halting the erosion of local administration. Buchanan Smith added that there is still a local leadership in Darfur and this constituency should be engaged with. One discussant highlighted the difference between ‘government’ and ‘governance’ in this context and stated that the latter still remained.

- There was a request for practical suggestions at a policy and operational level, which Bromwich stated were present in his study on the environment. He also mentioned the fact that a number of different organisations were working on this but there was no overall strategic direction or leadership from the UN.

- A question was posed as to whether traditional livelihood strategies had been broken beyond repair. Buchanan Smith replied that while there was devastation, people still want to go back to their villages, but that a lack of past economic investment has meant the region has been marginalised for years. Therefore there is a real need for schemes like the Darfur-Khartoum road to enable people to successfully return to their livelihoods.

- One participant asked whether the external world brings it’s own problems to Darfur. Buchanan Smith replied that there is a huge danger of the international community coming up with inappropriate answers and not engaging properly at a grassroots level. She highlighted the large numbers of expert national staff that have been working in Darfur for years who can inform the work of international organisations.

- There was a discussion about the need for clear guidance and support for field workers, in particular “do no harm” and the need for the humanitarian community to look outside the camps.


Much of the recent debate about environmental factors in the Darfur conflict has been phrased in extremes - for example, water finds that can bring peace - or reactions against this that fail to acknowledge the significance of the environment in a conflict in an area of subsistence livelihoods. Both the environmental issues and the politics are complex.

At this ODI event, Brendan Bromwich, who has been working in Darfur for 2 years, spoke about the environment in Darfur in the context of both the conflict and the long-term processes of environmental degradation in the Sahel region. Margie Buchanan Smith, an independent researcher who has recently returned from Darfur also offered her thoughts on the complexities of the current situation and examined prospects for the future.

Brendan Bromwich was a contributor to UNEP's major environmental assessment of Sudan published in June. He was also the lead author of the Tearfund report, 'Darfur: Relief in a vulnerable environment.' Prior to his work on environmental assessments, he was based in West Darfur where he worked on water programmes amongst both pastoralist and displaced farming communities.