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Emerging climate change cross- border conflicts along the Kenyan borderlands

By Sigrid Lipott

  •  May 19, 2015
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Environmental issues straddle borders and boundary lines. There are many different ways states and borderland communities address their 'common’ environmental problems, but the recognition of any 'common environmental' issue is not simple and often confronted by very serious tensions.

Despite the lack of overall established systems, there are numerous experiments of cross-border linkages all over the world.

In the absence of an encompassing authority to deal with externalities in common pool situations, the only way to reduce the typical resulting problems is to build an environmental regime, in order to reduce uncertainty, harmonize standards and policies and to ensure compliance through monitoring.

The main challenge policy makers in borderlands face pertains to the problems of resolving the dilemma between the need to pursue an environmental imperative of a 'multiple jurisdictions, one ecosystem' and the 'two jurisdictions, two environmental policies' scheme.

Typically, political responses to environmental issues are slow and there has to be very widespread environmental damage before action is taken.

A paradigmatic case is that of Hong Kong and China, which are called “one country two systems”, but have completely different perspectives on environmental policies, with the result that there is no robust and coordinated approach over cross - border water pollution problems in the Zhu River Delta, Deep Bay and Mirs Bay.

Some cross- border regions have created successful environmental regimes, for example in the case of the Lake Constance in Europe and Cascadia in North America.

Nevertheless, cross border environmental policies are also faced with challenges that relate to different regulatory regimes and standards, which may be further complicated by border tensions and disagreements. For example in The Grand Manan context on the US-Canada border, the Grey Zone area illustrates that the US regulations on fishing are different from those of Canada, suggesting that the 'two jurisdictions, two environmental policies' scheme is still dominant even in regions that have developed strong economic and cultural cross- border linkages.

In the EU there is a large consensus on the fact environmental problems need a strong and well-coordinated framework, so that development in the EU is sustainable. Europe 2020 Strategy emphasizes the important role sustainable growth plays and the most important environmental concerns include mitigation and adaptation to climate change, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

At the same time, in Africa some of the first cross- border climate change conflicts have surged.
From a regression analysis of historical data, scholars found out that there is a relationship between past internal conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and variations in temperature and that there are substantial increases in conflict during warmer years.
 
In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region as the world’s first climate change conflict.
The lack of common cross- border regimes, coupled with climate change, may potentially not only increase the risk for violent conflicts and/or aggravate the existing conflict dynamics, but also create the prerequisites for new cross - border tensions.
The Kenyan borders provide at least two examples.

The Karamoja region is one of the most environmentally fragile areas of Uganda located in the northeast, bordering Kenya. The hardship endured by the Karamoja cluster, composed of 14 tribes, has intensified in recent years. Cattle-raiding and the struggle for other scarce resources has accelerated between the Pokot, Pian and Sabiny communities, resulting in an upsurge in internal and cross- border violence. The conflict between these three neighbouring communities has taken place on both sides of the Uganda-Kenya border.

The Pian-Pokot-Sabiny conflict is principally the result of violent competition over access to scarce pasture and water. Nevertheless, the conflict factors are exacerbated by harsh climatic conditions and recurrent drought prevailing on either side of the border, as well as on different environmental policies pursued by the respective governments.

In Uganda, the government favoured development policies that restricted pastoralists’ access to water and pasture. As a consequence, the Karamojong started to encroach on agriculturalists’ lands surrounding their traditional pastures, and different pastoralist communities increasingly started to raid each other across the border.

Figure 1: Karamoja region, Uganda- Kenya border

A second example comes from the Kenyan – Ethiopian borderland.
 
Nomadic herdsmen living in the semi – arid lowlands between Ethiopia and Kenya, in recent years, have faced unprecedented challenges. As a consequence of climate change and global warming, temperatures in the region have risen and water supplies have dwindled. That search for suitable water has brought tribal and pastoralist groups – in particular the Turkana of Kenya and the Dassanech, Nyangatom, and Mursi of Ethiopia - in increasing border tensions, which escalated into conflicts over the waters of the Omo River and the Lake Turkana. As temperatures in the region have risen about 2 degrees F since 1960, and the lake has diminished, it has disappeared altogether from Ethiopian territory and retreated south into Kenya. The Dassanech people have followed the water, and in doing so have come into direct conflict with the Turkana of Kenya.

Figure 2: Omo river region, Ethiopia – Kenya border

The famine the Turkana and the Ethiopians are facing has been further aggravated since they started fighting with each other and since the Ethiopian government has started the largest hydropower project in Sub – Saharan Africa, building a dam on the upper Omo River.
Due for completion in 2014, the project Gibe III will regulate the flow of the Omo and permanently modify the annual flood regime upon which the borderland agro-pastoralists of the lower Omo depend for their livelihoods.

When completed, it will destroy a fragile environment and the livelihoods of the tribes living in the borderland between Kenya and Ethiopia, which are closely linked to the river and its annual flood.

Other peoples, such as the Hamar, Chai, or Suri and Turkana, live further from the river and from the border, but due to a network of inter-ethnic alliances, they are also likely to be involved in conflicts as the other tribes compete for natural resources.  
At this stage, it is called for more research on how the impact of climate change and the lack of a common cross- border environmental regime could increase vulnerability to cross- border conflict in fragile ecosystems.

About the Author:

Sigrid Lipott has got an MA in International and Diplomatic Studies and a PhD in Transborder Policies from IUIES (Gorizia, Italy) and she is currently working as a freelance researcher and consultant with a focus on cross- border cooperation, cross- border conflicts and EU foreign policy.

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