Issue 39 - Article 7

Environmental degradation and conflict in Darfur: implications for peace and recovery

July 1, 2008
Brendan Bromwich, UNEP

The conflict in Darfur has greatly accelerated the processes of environmental degradation that have been undermining subsistence livelihoods in the area over recent decades. The implication of this is that environmental drivers of conflict have worsened as a result of the current crisis. An understanding of the physical and social processes involved must inform humanitarian programming, recovery planning and peace processes at local and national level so that this accelerated environmental degradation may be slowed and its impacts mitigated.

The debate over the environment in Darfur illustrates the complexity of a conflict that has numerous levels. The lowest level of conflict, between neighbouring tribes and villages, displays the environmental aspect of the conflict most acutely, as different livelihood groups seek to adapt their ways of life to increasing resource scarcity. This is happening in a context where traditional rules of environmental management have been weakened, and in places rejected altogether. However, even the conflict between different tribes has both local dimensions, over control of resources, and higher-level political dimensions. The local conflicts over resources have become a dimension of the wider conflict between Darfur and central Sudan, relating to long-term issues of political and economic marginalisation, amid regional tensions relating particularly to Chad. Ethnicity complicates the conflict at all levels. The interaction of these different levels of conflict is one of the defining complexities of the Darfur crisis. Thus, while resource scarcity is not solely responsible for conflict at the tribal level, it is a major driver, and must be seen in the context of wider political and economic marginalisation.

Darfur lies on the edge of a desert in an area that suffers both from an overall paucity of resources and a high degree of variability in the availability of resources. This scarcity and variability have required a high level of community management, given that different groups use resources in different ways for their livelihoods. The environmental aspect of the conflict therefore must be analysed with reference to governance and livelihoods.

Water resources and vegetation

Darfur has low and variable rainfall, ranging from less than 50mm in the northern desert to approximately 200mm around El Fasher, 300–500mm in Geneina and Nyala and up to 800mm or more in the south and in Jebal Mara. Figure 1 shows the rainfall records for El Fasher from 1917 to 2007. Rainfall has been lower in recent decades than previously, and dry years have become more frequent.

Rain normally falls in four months of the year, so there is a large variation in the availability of water between the wet and dry seasons. This is exacerbated by the limited storage provided by the Basement Complex geology that underlies most of the more populous parts of Darfur. The Basement Complex rocks are dissected by wadi valleys with alluvial deposits that are comparatively water-rich. Typical well yields in Basement Complex geology are 0.1 to 1.0 litres per second, as against 1–20 litres per second for alluvial areas. This makes the wadi areas good for agriculture, in contrast to the wide rangeland on higher ground, which lies on Basement Complex.

During the dry season, livestock migrates off the rangeland to the wadi areas for shade and to feed on crop residues. A variety of longer-distance migrations also take place, including from the wet season rangelands in the north to the less arid south for the dry season. This system requires a high degree of cooperation between pastoralist and farming communities to negotiate access for transhumant herders and to safeguard farmers’ crops from grazing animals. A wide range of traditional rules exist, for the management of long-distance routes, access to water sources at wadis through vegetable gardens, for the timing of different shepherding rules and for dispute resolution.

In arid and semi-arid areas, rainfall is the most significant determinant of the amount of vegetation, so the variability in rainfall and the poor storage of groundwater are reflected in the variability in vegetation both spatially and temporally in Darfur. Whilst this is most pronounced between the wet season and the dry, considerable variation exists between one year and the next. This makes Darfur’s subsistence livelihoods additionally uncertain.


Long-term processes of environmental degradation and increasing scarcity

Darfur has experienced significant growth in population over recent decades, from just over 1m people in the mid-1950s to around 6.5m in the early 2000s (see Table 1).

The marked increase in population density since the mid-1970s has put pressure on both sedentary and pastoralist livelihood systems. The UN University of Peace conference ‘Environmental Degradation as a Cause of Conflict in Darfur’, held in Khartoum in December 2004, describes the following links between the environment and conflict:

    1. The increase in population density intensifies cropping and grazing.
    2. This means shorter fallow periods for fields and overgrazed rangeland.
    3. These processes cause a deterioration in yields and carrying capacities.
    4. Larger areas are needed to support the same yields and herds, but demands and herds are increasing.
    5. Herders and farmers compete for access to resources, leading to conflict.

These long-term processes are also evident in the loss of forestry in the last three decades. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Post Conflict Environmental Assessment of Sudan estimates that deforestation in Darfur is in excess of 1% per annum. The change in land use from 1973 to 2006 for the Kass area is shown in Figure 2, where the proportion of land covered by forest fell from 51% to 36%. Forestry is of particular economic significance, not just because of its value for timber and fuel but also because of its role in protecting land quality.

Source: Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, June 2007, p. 206, at

The effects of these processes on the availability of fuel wood are stark, with significant scarcity across large parts of Darfur. In addition to the local demands, UNEP estimates that within five to ten years the northern states will be dependent on the south and Darfur for charcoal, exacerbating local conflict over control of natural resources. Analysis of forestry in Sudan must therefore be made at the national rather than regional level.

Climate change

Rainfall records from El Fasher show a marked drop beginning with drought in 1972. Although there were a number of wet years in the 1990s, climate change models differ on whether recovery will continue, or whether the overall trend will be further drying. More significantly, droughts have become more frequent: 16 of the 20 driest years recorded have occurred since 1972. Climate change models also predict a reduction in the length of the growing period: Figure 4 shows the reduction in the length of the growing period from 2000 to 2020 and 2000 to 2050. Parts of North Darfur will see a reduction of more than 20% between 2000 and 2020, with similar reductions across nearly all of Darfur by 2050. This will have a considerable impact on livelihoods and food security.

Source: P. K. Thornton et al., Mapping Climate Vulnerability and Poverty in Africa, ILRI, May 2006,

Chronic conflict and political change

Traditional governance in Darfur has been weakened. The tribal leadership had legal authority under the Native Administration system until 1971, when the system was abolished. In 1986 it was renewed but its role has varied according to wider political and religious dynamics. Profound changes, such as the redrawing of state boundaries breaking up tribal homelands, have altered the tribal-political map, but issues such as the marginalisation of tribes without land persist. Inconsistent and weak tribal administration have undermined traditional environmental management.

The abolition of the Native Administration system in 1971 preceded the 1972–73 drought, which meant that there was reduced governance capacity to address the problems of migration and conflict that occurred at the time. The most severe drought, in 1984, triggered major migrations and changes in livelihoods, again in the absence of tribal governance ahead of the reconstitution of the Native Administration in 1986. At the same time the number of weapons in Darfur was beginning to increase and regional ethnic tension was growing. This led to one of Darfur’s more significant tribal wars between Fur and Arab tribes from 1987 to 1989. According to the contents of the Truce Committee’s report, the war related to both political and environmental issues. The agreement also lamented the weak governance at the time. This pattern of political and environmental conflict coinciding along tribal divides is reflected in the current conflict. This war was not an isolated event: UNEP’s Post Conflict Environmental Assessment lists 27 conflicts in Darfur since 1975 in which environment and livelihoods have been a component.

Darfur has also suffered from under-investment in infrastructure and services, a reflection of the political and economic marginalisation at the root of the conflict between Darfur and Khartoum. Lack of education and health services and constrained access to markets restrict the diversification of livelihood opportunities as a means of adapting to the problems caused by environmental degradation.

Darfur cannot be reduced to a discussion over resource scarcity leading to conflict alone, but this scarcity, which is a major driver in conflict at the tribal level, must be addressed in the context of poor governance and underdevelopment.

The impacts of the current conflict

The chronic processes of environmental degradation and the loss of traditional environmental governance have been greatly accelerated during the current crisis, both by the effects of massive displacement and by the fighting itself.

The unprecedented concentrations of population in Darfur are causing localised resource depletion. In Abu Shouk and Al Salaam camps, 12–15 boreholes of the 66 drilled have run dry. IDP camps are generally located on the outskirts of market towns, resulting in the destruction of shelter belts, forestry and farmland. In addition to displacement, the following processes are causing severe environmental degradation:

  • Uncontrolled deforestation is taking place, in the context of a breakdown of governance, driven by the role of timber and fuel wood in the war and crisis economy.
  • Natural and physical assets are being destroyed as a feature of the war – farmers’ crops are grazed by pastoralists’ livestock, rangeland is burnt to prevent grazing and handpumps are destroyed.
  • Crisis livelihood strategies have short-term horizons, undermining the natural resource base.
  • Migration routes are blocked, leading to overgrazing in areas where livestock are concentrated.

Implications for recovery and development

The vulnerability of livelihoods in Darfur is characteristic of the rest of the Sahel, which also suffers from environmental degradation, population growth, poor governance, conflict, climate change, under-investment, dependency on natural resources and lack of opportunities for diversification. Many of these challenges – such as population growth and the increased frequency of droughts – are growing.

Since Darfur’s economy is founded on natural resources, equitable and sustainable environmental governance at village and tribal level needs to be restored as a foundation for economic development. This must be done in a manner that can manage the recurring impacts of drought and crop failure. This will need numerous agreements between tribal groups and communities over access to and management of resources, in addition to resolution at the higher political level.

Efforts to support development in Darfur must learn from the experiences of the western Sahel, and vice versa. A longer-term holistic approach to supporting the region is required. Assistance must integrate development with the inevitable need for recurring humanitarian assistance, disaster risk reduction and adaptation to the impacts of climate change. These activities must provide a foundation of support for economic development in the absence of a reliable resource base.

The Sahel Working Group’s report Beyond Any Drought, addressing vulnerability in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, makes the following recommendations, which apply well to Darfur:

  • Plan for drought.
  • Plan to improve capacity to resist and recover.
  • Integrate humanitarian and development work.
  • Support pastoralism – a livelihood adapted to the variability of resources in the Sahel.
  • Understand the detail.
  • Increase long-term assistance.

Climate change, drought cycle management, disaster risk reduction and mitigation of the environmental impacts of the current crisis in Darfur all call for sustainable resource management, good governance and support to livelihoods – which are all needed as part of the humanitarian response in Darfur.

Tearfund’s report Darfur: Relief in a Vulnerable Environment provides an analysis of the environmental context and makes recommendations for integrating sustainable resource management into relief programming in order to maintain the resources needed for the humanitarian response, as well as for preparation for recovery. The follow-up report, Darfur: Water Supply in a Vulnerable Environment highlights the need to anticipate dry years in the humanitarian context. Drought preparedness is an urgent priority for the water sector given the unprecedented concentrations of population drawing on Darfur’s poor aquifers and the variability of rainfall. Oxfam and UNICEF’s introduction of groundwater monitoring in IDP camps addresses this issue. The Tufts University Darfur Livelihood Workshops provided livelihood analysis that demonstrates the role of environment and conflict, and provides further recommendations for appropriate relief and recovery programming.

It is striking to compare the categories of adaptation to climate change presented in the Stern report with the impacts of the current crisis in Darfur. The conflict has had a devastating impact on efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change. However, two vital opportunities exist as a result of the large relief programme: to introduce new technologies, such as new building, energy or water management methods; and to build the capacity of individuals and organisations in livelihoods and environmental programming.

The process of adaptation to climate change would be a major challenge for Darfur in peacetime. However, both the major loss of natural resources and the undermining of traditional environmental governance make the challenge far greater. While uncertainties exist in the modelling of the predicted extent of climate change, the measures needed to adapt to its impacts are often the same as those needed to promote water and energy security in humanitarian assistance in the current context in Darfur.

Conclusions and recommendations

Darfur lies on the edge of a desert, in an area that suffers both from an overall paucity of resources and from a high degree of variability in the availability of resources. As a result of population growth, climate change, poor governance and conflict, it faces immense environmental challenges. Given the role of environmental degradation and the failure of environmental governance in undermining Darfur’s livelihoods, these issues must be addressed under the humanitarian programme and as the focal points of a subsequent longer-term programme of support to Darfur. Humanitarian and early recovery programming must be undertaken in a manner that builds capacity to respond to these challenges. In sum, the massive overarching environmental narrative of the Darfur crisis calls for a new approach to environmentally sensitive relief and recovery programming and peace-building.

On this basis, the following recommendations are made:

    1. The peace process must address the environmental/livelihood conflict at the local or tribal level, in addition to higher-level political issues. Relationships between communities need to be knitted together village by village in the context of numerous tribal agreements. Support to livelihoods is an important entry point for peace initiatives at the tribal level because different livelihood groups need to collaborate over access to natural resources.
    2. Rural environmental governance needs to be rebuilt in Darfur in a manner that is sufficiently inclusive to withstand the challenges of severe droughts in coming years and the accompanying risks of further conflict.
    3. Proposed support for economic development in Darfur needs to acknowledge that the resource base required as a foundation for sustainable development faces chronic degradation, which has been greatly exacerbated by the impacts of the conflict. Therefore, sustainable resource management, adaptation to the impacts of climate change, disaster risk reduction, drought cycle management, livelihood programming and rebuilding rural environmental governance will be core activities in restoring the foundation upon which Darfur’s economy is built.
    4. Drought and harvest failure must be planned for as normal occurrences; recovery and development planning must include a flexible relief component, on a demand-led basis.
    5. Similarly, humanitarian programming must adapt itself to Darfur’s considerable environmental vulnerability. Progress has been made in introducing environmental issues in relief programmes, despite increasingly difficult operating conditions, but this needs significant expansion in terms of introducing timberless construction and improved energy programming such as planting woodlots to provide energy for camps. Environmental management needs to be integrated in camp planning in a strategic and systematic way. The opportunities for long-term benefits in technology transfer, capacity-building and mainstreaming environmental practice should be realised. Drought preparedness is a priority.
    6. Analysis in humanitarian programming in Darfur needs to make stronger linkages between conflict, protection, livelihoods and environment. Impact assessments in each area need to refer to the others.
    7. A major programme to reverse the rate of deforestation in Sudan is needed at a national level. This must include the increased use of alternative construction and energy technologies in order to slow deforestation in Darfur and other marginal areas.
References and further reading

UNEP, Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, June 2007, see php?prog=sudan.

Tearfund, Darfur: Relief in a Vulnerable Environment, March 2007,

Tearfund, Darfur: Water Supply in a Vulnerable Environment, October 2007,

Helen Young et al., Sharpening the Strategic Focus of Livelihoods Programming in the Darfur Region: A Report of Four Livelihoods Workshops, Feinstein International Center, 12 September 2007,

Environmental Degradation as a Cause of Conflict in Darfur: Conference Proceedings, University for Peace, Khartoum, December 2007.

Alex de Waal (ed.), War in Darfur and the Search for Peace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).


Brendan Bromwich manages UNEP’s programmes on environmental coordination and water resource management in Darfur. He was a contributor to UNEP’s Sudan Post Conflict Environmental Assessment and co-author of Darfur: Relief in a Vulnerable Environment, Darfur: Water Supply in a Vulnerable Environment and Sharpening the Strategic Focus of Livelihoods Programming in the Darfur Region.


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