The Security Implications of Climate Change: A Sudan Case Study

This article was written in 2011 and was previously published in
Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga

In today’s context, the security implications of climate change are of ever-increasing significance to international relations and global security. This paper will assess the similarities and differences between national, human and environmental security and discuss using Sudan as a case study how climate change affects these three security paradigms. Sudan presents as an interesting example of how issues related to changes in climate can lead to insecurity and violent conflict within a nation. Sudan, a country with a considerably low adaptive capacity[1], has been identified as one of the most vulnerable states in Africa (and indeed the world) in regards to the issues of climate change and security (Lipper et al, 2009, 7). Since the end of the Cold War, security has been less and less concerned with relations between nations and increasingly focused on nonconventional threats which arise from dwindling natural resources and the ‘deterioration of earth’s biological systems’ (Foster, 2001, 2). In this era, threats conventionally deemed relevant to national security have been ‘…expanded to include issues such as forced migration of populations, terrorism, diseases, food insecurity, and the impacts of climate change’ (Mangala, 2010, 1).

Security has been defined by Mangala (2010, 2) as involving ‘…the provision of protection to some referent object through the reduction of its vulnerabilities and the lessening or removal of threats to its survival or well-being’. As Lipper (2009, 7) outlines, it is important to identify and distinguish between ‘… security at the level of the individual and security at the level of states’. National security is traditionally associated with realist international theory and the assumption that the biggest threat to a state comes from the military action of other state actors. As Avgerou et al (2008, 98) highlights, national security involves the ‘…protection or the extension of vital national values against existing or potential adversaries.’ National security in the traditional sense therefore focuses on maintaining political and economic stability in order to ensure the security and survival of the state. These concepts of national security which were dominant throughout the Cold War, rest on ‘…traditional realist canons that posit the state as the sole or primary referent object’ (Mangala, 2010, 1).

This is in contrast to human security, which places ‘…the needs and well-being of humans as primary referents of security’ (Mangala, 2010, 1 and Barnett and Adger, 2007, 640). Determinants of human security include access to adequate housing and health care, the availability and access to food and clean water, and a sense of peace and physical safety (Barnett and Adger, 2007, 640). Human security therefore encompasses issues such as food and water scarcity, illicit drug trading, refugees, environmental degradation and poverty. Although the focus of human security is on the individual rather than the state, as Matthew et al (2010, 121) recognises, ‘…the processes that undermine or strengthen human security are often beyond the geographical and political scope of individuals’. For example, in terms of environmental change, upstream users of water, multinational logging and mining corporations and distant atmospheric polluters, along with a host of other remote and large scale actors, influence the security of individuals and impact upon their ability to access necessary services and resources (Matthew et al, 2010, 121).

As Habib (2009, 3) highlights, ‘Environmental security was a natural outgrowth of the human security paradigm’. Environmental security threats can either stem from environmental degradation, natural disasters or resource scarcity. As Foster (2001, 6) recognises, issues such as desertification, deforestation and polluted air and water supplies also impact upon human and national security within any given country. Hence, it is important to acknowledge how issues of national, human and environmental security are interconnected and dependent on one another. This is illustrated by Mazo’s (2010, 15) statement that ‘Conflict prevention or preventing state failure for selfish, hard (national) security reasons thus also enhances human security’.

Stemming from both socio-economic issues and environmental problems, Sudan presents various human, national and environmental security concerns (Habib, 2009, 13). Sudan, the largest country in Africa, has a long history of societal issues and armed conflict concerning the environment. This is not surprising when you consider that Sudan’s economy relies heavily on the land, with the agricultural sector representing around eighty percent of the work force (Webersik, 2008, 2). Since gaining independence from Britain in 1965, Sudan’s modern history has been fraught with civil unrest and revolution with the country attracting significant international attention recently when tensions between the ‘…prosperous centre and the periphery, between the North and the South’ (Collins, 2008, 1) exploded in the Darfur region. According to Webersik (2008, 1), there is a very significant link between conflict in Darfur and desertification and land degradation. Along with this, as a highly agrarian state, Sudan has long been dependant on rainfall which corresponds with fluctuations in the economic and political trends of the nation. Climate change is likely to aggravate existing societal, ethnic, political and economic issues within Sudan, will contribute to food and water scarcity, and exacerbate mass migration (Busby, 2007, 9). As Mazo (2010, 12) aptly states, although climate change alone ‘…does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world’.

In terms of national security, climate change poses a variety of very tangible threats to the Sudanese government which is already weak and vulnerable to attack due to years of tension and instability. In numerous reports regarding the link between environmental threats and national security, climate change has repeatedly been labeled a ‘threat multiplier’ for conflict and state failure (Brainard, 2009, 156). The concept of state failure is a threat to the security of a nation such as Sudan as the collapse of internal institutions leaves states vulnerable to external military attack. Homer – Dixon (1991, 77), who is widely regarded as a key figure in the “climate – security” debate has pioneered work in the field saying that ‘environmental change may shift the balance of power between states either regionally or globally, producing instabilities that could lead to war’. Climate change has been said to accelerate the depletion of vital natural resources which governments across the world rely on. Consequently the increasing scarcity of such resources will often lead to violent civil and interstate conflicts thus altering the current power balance between states (Homer – Dixon, 1994, 9). ‘As natural resources become degraded due to overexploitation and global warming, it is argued, rising human populations will be forced to migrate internally or cross borders’ (Hendrix and Glaser, 2007, 1). As a result of this, distributional conflicts will arise between countries as they continue to compete for a share of the declining natural resources that are left. Along with this, as forced migration becomes more and more frequent, it becomes increasingly difficult for states to protect their national security and migration on a mass scale may blur existing territorial borders.

In relation to Sudan, migration is one of the major threats to national security invoked in reaction to climate change induced conflict, disaster and resource scarcity (Brainard, 2009, 159). Sudan has gone from being a host to a massive influx of refugees during the 1970’s and 1980’s to becoming a generator of migration on an unprecedented mass scale. This has created according to Verney (2006, 1), ‘…the world’s largest crisis of human displacement’. In relation to national security, mass migration presents an array of challenges, including increased civil unrest and problems regarding resource allocation and distribution. There is an estimate of one and a half to two million displaced people in south Sudan, the majority of whom are casualties of the fighting between rebel factions in the Darfur region (Verney, 2006, 2). Driven by a lack of resources and environmental degradation, violent conflict has left weak governmental institutions and a fragile political system. Given that climate change is expected to dramatically intensify issues such as drought, flood, storms, erosion, and desertification which lead to further violent conflict and migration, it is reasonable to say that whilst indirect, the link between the environment and national security is evident (Reuveny, 2007, 1). Climate change indirectly links to national security because it acts as a threat multiplier increasing already existing problems such as resource scarcity, ethnic tensions, and forced migration. All of these problems amplify the likelihood of military conflict and intervention between states and therefore, are detrimental to the national security of a state such as Sudan which is so vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change.

Despite this, it is apparent that the concept of security in the traditional sense is insufficient in explaining the threat that climate change poses to a society. It is for this reason that the human security paradigm emerged. One of the key conceptual differences between national and human security is that the former implies that threats arising from external forces are more dangerous to the state than threats which may arise from within the state itself (Najam, 2004, 314). A human security issue, in contrast to a national security issue, can be described as a threat to the livelihood and wellbeing of the individual rather than the state. Sudan presents a wide variety of human security issues related to the impacts of climate change including food and water scarcity, poverty, disease, social inequality and internal conflict. Due to Sudan’s reliance on agriculture for the livelihood of the vast majority of its population, its food and economic systems are highly vulnerable to changes in the climate. Situated in the Sahel zone, Sudan faces increasing desertification, changing precipitation patterns and warming (Lipper et al, 2009, 14). This situation has led to large populations being impoverished and lacking basic necessities. Water specifically is becoming increasingly scarce due to rising temperatures and increased evaporation rates, thus causing water security to be unstable, and in turn ‘…strongly affecting human security and increasing the risk of water-related conflicts’ (Lipper et al, 2009, 7). The issues mentioned above, such as food and water scarcity can be defined as human security problems due to the fact that they impede on peoples ability to live safe, happy and secure lives. This is partly because conflict and disruption to daily life is far more likely to occur when the basic needs of individuals such as access to food, water, shelter, adequate health care and education are not met (Habib, 2009, 2).

The collision between the environment and security is a fairly recent development. Like the concept of human security, environmental security has become increasingly popular in international studies in the post Cold War era. Despite this, as Barnett (2001, 1) acknowledges, the term is still fairly ambiguous. However, as Conca and Dabelko (2004, 285) outline…

‘…the environmental security paradigm rests on a series of claims: that environmental change is an important source of social conflict; that many societies face graver dangers from environmental change than from traditional military threats; and that security policies must be redefined to take account of these new realities’.

Critical though they are the security implications of climate change are not limited to food, water and health. Therefore, environmental security extends its focus to other important areas of the environment such as environmental degradation, desertification, natural disasters and sea – level rise (Dupont and Pearman, 2006, 41). The concept of environmental security essentially involves the protection of the environment from its abuse and destruction and from pollution and human intrusion. This includes the sane utilization and harvest of natural resources (Westing, 1991, 168). The arid region of the Horn of Africa covers most of Sudan as well as large parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. The number of people inhabiting this region grossly exceeds the lands capacity to produce sufficient and sustainable levels of food and fuel. According to Westing (1991, 169), the croplands, forests and wild lands of the Horn are all being utilised and exhausted at a rate ‘… far beyond their substantial yield, and the damage to them is becoming ever more grim’. This situation has led to many examples of conflict regarding the use and distribution of resources which are becoming increasingly scarce in the context of climate change.

Within Sudan, the exploitation and deprivation of resources such as oil, water and land is a major source of conflict; with profits generally going to the Northern Sudanese elites at the expense of the poorer South Sudanese. The Darfur region in particular has suffered immense droughts and creeping desertification. According to Habib (2009, 13), even Darfur’s cultural and ethnic identity is partially shaped by the climate. Competition over scarce natural resources between the “Arab” nomads in the north and the “African” sedentary farmers in the south is said to be one of the chief causes of conflict within the Darfur region (Hassan and Ray, 2009, 103). Conflict of this sort is bound to occur when two such culturally homogenous groups of people are thrust together in the face of climate change to defend their rights to the diminishing natural resources that remain in the region. This situation presents vast challenges to environmental security within Sudan, threats which are unable to be tackled in the traditional military sense.

Due to significant human security issues such as food, water and resource scarcity, coupled with a weak and unstable government, Sudan has a limited capacity to adapt to the threats that climate change poses. This predicament further increases the countries insecurity. This point is cleverly illustrated by Mazo (2010, 10) who outlines the multi-causal nature of the ‘climate – security nexus’ saying that…

‘…while climate change may act as a threat multiplier in conjunction with political, economic or social factors, such factors can reduce the ability of a society to implement measures to mitigate the environmental impacts of climate change, thus acting as threat multipliers for environmental stresses’.

This statement shows how climate change impacts upon a state’s security and that in turn, insecurity and instability also acts as a threat multiplier for existing environmental issues and limits that counties adaptive capacity. Therefore, it really is a two way street when assessing the links between climate and security because both factors impact upon one another in various ways.

Due to this, looking at climate change and conflict in Sudan through the lenses of traditional security is inefficient. This is because it implies a military approach to dealing with issues of food, water, and fuel scarcity, environmental degradation, migration and conflict. Instead, particularly within developing countries global south countries such as Sudan, there needs to be a focus on fixing the key governmental and societal institutions and addressing existing socioeconomic, ethnic and political tensions (Deudney, 2004, 303). This is in order to improve that nation’s adaptive and coping capacities, and thus minimize the security and environmental threats caused by climate change. Deudney (2004, 303) states that it is misleading to consider the environment to be a national security threat because the focus of traditional security on interstate violence ‘…has little in common with either environmental problems or solutions’. Threat reduction and prevention regarding climate change needs to be pragmatic and cooperative in the context of international relations (Marquina, 2010, 481) therefore, it cannot be addressed through a traditional national security approach alone.

Climate change is a global problem and therefore it has far reaching implications on an international scale. This means that climate change cannot be considered solely on the basis of one state and its security. For example, environmental conflict in Sudan has been known to spill over into neighboring African countries such as Chad, thus causing problems of regional and global concern. As Luterbacher and Sprinz (2001, 276) outline, global problems such as climate change require ‘…truly global political approaches’. Because of this, multilateral cooperation needs to take place in order to mitigate the global impacts of climate change. This idea comes from liberal international theory which assumes that it is mutually beneficial for states to work together to combat issues of international concern (Held, 2011, 169). It is for this reason that an exclusively realist security approach to mitigating climate change is ineffective. The focus of climate change as a military security issue detracts from a states’ ability to work in conjunction with other states in order to mitigate the effects of climate related threats, therefore a cooperative approach needs to be taken to ensure the continued survival and security of all states.

When assessing the similarities and differences between national, human and environmental security, it must be concluded that whilst each paradigm has a different focus, they are all geared towards the same goal of protecting some referent object (Owen, 2004, 15). National security, which reached its peak during the Cold War, takes a state centric approach to dealing with security issues, positing the state as the primary referent object for protection. The national security paradigm perceives the biggest threat to the state to be invoked from the direct military action of other states (Mangala, 2010, 3). However, both human and environmental security see the needs and well being of individuals to be the objective of security concerns (Alkire, 2003, 2). Both forms of security (human and environmental) believe that issues regarding migration, poverty, disease and environmental change potentially pose far greater threats than that of military intervention (Alkire, 2003, 2). Herein the fundamental difference lies between the three security paradigms.

Overall, it is clear that there is a link between security and climate change. However this link is complicated and not easily defined. Following the end of the Cold War, new human and environmental security paradigms emerged to fill the gaps that traditional national security could not fill. Therefore, due to the different focuses of each level of security, all three paradigms need to be applied in conjunction to provide a comprehensive framework for dealing with issues of climate change and security. When looking at the examples provided in the case study of Sudan, it is clear that issues of food and water scarcity, environmental degradation, forced migration and conflict are being compounded by climate change, and thus impacting upon the nations security at all levels. Through examining Sudan in relation to the environment and security, it is obvious that climate change acts as a threat multiplier to pre – existing societal issues such as weak governmental institutions, ethnic tensions and socioeconomic conditions. The degradation and destruction of the natural environment upon which all human societies rest poses far reaching implications on a global scale, particularly within those counties with low adaptive capacities and existing societal issues such as Sudan. However, as Deudney (2004, 312) states, to address climate change and issues related to the environment using ‘…the blood soaked garments of the war system’ is to betray the core values related to the environment and create confusion regarding the real tasks and solutions at hand.


[1] According to Armitage, adaptive capacity can be defined as ‘…the capability of a social – ecological system to cope with disturbances and changes while retaining critical functions, structures and feedback systems’ (2010, 199).



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