Climate and security, a clear priority for Belgium

Climate disruption plays an undeniable role in various conflict situations. As such, Belgium wants the United Nations to systematically take into account the potential impact of a changing climate in its security actions.

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Soldiers in the desert

© Shutterstock

Climate disruption can no longer be disputed. Ever more extreme weather is occurring all over the world, from prolonged drought to heavy rainfall that can result in floods. But also fierce hurricanes, heatwaves, the alarming rise in sea levels, devastating forest fires ... Several "water towers" - such as those in the Himalayas in Tibet and in the Andes - supply hundreds of millions of people with water, but are gradually losing their supply of ice.

It goes without saying that these phenomena are putting additional pressure on water and food supplies. And this is definitely the case in areas where water and food security is already precarious, such as the Middle East, Africa and South-east Asia. Wherever there are shortages of life's basic necessities, population groups can enter into competition and conflict with each other. Or lose confidence in the functioning of their often already weak governments.

Risk multiplier

It is now broadly accepted that even if climate and environmental factors generally do not directly result in conflict per se, they can greatly increase the risk of conflict. Climate therefore plays a role as a "risk multiplier of conflict".

An often cited example is the war in Syria that ignited in 2011. Prior to the war, there was a severe drought from 2007 to 2010. Millions of farmers and herdsmen moved to cities like Damascus and Aleppo. This more than likely helped create fertile ground for political unrest.

Iraq is also regularly plagued by drought, a phenomenon which the terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS) fully exploited. It recruited the most desperate farmers at markets, with promises of food and money.

Tensions between (sedentary) farmers and (nomadic) herders can also be fuelled by climate disruption, for example in Mali. Because of droughts, nomadic Fulani herdsmen were obliged to descend with their cattle to more southern regions. There they came into conflict with Dogon and Bambara farmers. There too, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda reaped the benefit.

On every continent

On every continent, you can find numerous examples of climate disruption exacerbating (the risk of) conflict. For example, the mass exodus of people from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is not only due to failing economies and corrupt governments. Persistent food shortages, partly caused by drought, also triggers political unrest and mass migration.

The melting Arctic ice offers economic opportunities: cheaper shipping routes, new fishing areas, ecotourism and massive gas and oil reserves. But potential conflict immediately arises between the countries that believe they have a claim to the area.

Arctic ice caps

The melting Arctic ice offers opportunities, but might also lead to conflict. © Shutterstock

Belgian priority

Climate disruption therefore has an undeniable impact on security, and that impact is only growing. As such, Belgium wants the United Nations (UN) to systematically take the climate into account in all their security-related actions. Indeed, our country prefers to prevent conflicts rather than manage them. Belgium is therefore strongly committed to prevention. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council - the primary body responsible for peace and security in the world - our country places even stronger emphasis on this aspect. As such, it joined the Group of Friends on Climate and Security.

Belgium also ensures that the mandate of UN peacekeeping missions in Mali, Somalia and the Central African Republic, among others, takes due account of the possible vagaries of the climate. In the mandate for MONUSCO - the UN peacekeeping mission for DR Congo - attention is also paid to the country's ecological fragility, thanks to Belgian efforts. Indeed, extreme weather can easily disrupt the improved, but delicate, relationship between population groups. Peacekeeping missions also need to be able to help prevent disasters. Mediation or peace-building only makes sense if the full scope of a conflict and its underlying causes are understood.

Our country also believes that the extensive information gathered by the UN agencies should guide the work of the UN Security Council. This can be done via a future 'Clearing House', a service that processes information from UN agencies such as UNEP (environment) and FAO (food and agriculture) into useful input for the UN Security Council. A "Climate and Security Mechanism" unit currently exists, but its capacity is too small. Incidentally, Belgium finances a position for a young professional in this unit. In addition, our country is working to ensure that the UN Secretary-General presents a global report on Climate & Security to the UN Security Council every two years.

Belgium also wants to contribute to raising awareness of the problem. To this end, it organises debates and brainstorming sessions. In 2019, for example, a seminar was held on the possible consequences of "geo-engineering": large-scale interventions to combat global warming. For example, it may be possible to block sunlight by creating opaque clouds with finely misted seawater, or solar rays could be reflected by spraying aerosols - suspended solid and liquid particles - into the outer layer of the atmosphere. Humans would play the role of "weather gods", so to speak.

But these controversial techniques may have unintended consequences around the world. For example, they might reduce rainfall in some countries, which may lead to conflict. Some countries are already investing in geo-engineering. It goes without saying that poorer countries do not have the resources in this regard, and they will be left in the margins without fair, global regulation. The EU does not want to use these techniques as long as there is uncertainty as to the risks.

Belgian Development Cooperation

The Belgian Development Cooperation is also feeling the impact of "climate & security". Indeed, the majority of its partner countries are among the Least Developed Countries. These often 'fragile' countries - whether as states or communities - are barely able to cope with new threats such as climate disruption.

As such, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts and floods can easily disrupt the fragile security situation in these countries. Moreover, the Belgian Development Cooperation is already active today in conflict areas such as the Sahel and the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. In short, "climate & security" can seriously undermine the effectiveness of development projects.

That is why Belgium intends to set up a research platform around this issue. One of the aims of the platform is to find out to what extent climate disruption is affecting security in our partner countries. It should also provide ideas on how fragile countries can better arm themselves against these climate and security risks, and on how Belgium can ensure that its development programmes are less exposed to the climate impact on security.