Media Briefings

CLIMATE AND CONFLICT: Evidence of a weak link between drought and the likelihood of civil war

  • Published Date: March 2014

CLIMATE AND CONFLICT: Evidence of a weak link between drought and the likelihood of civil war

Drought-stricken African countries that are more ethnically divided or more democratic are more prone to conflict than countries with fewer ethnic divisions or a lower level of democracy. That is one of the conclusions of research by Mathieu Couttenier and Raphael Soubeyran that sheds light on the complex relationship between drought and the likelihood of civil war.

Their study, which is published in the March 2014 issue of the Economic Journal, uses data on the post-World War II history of civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa and the evolution of a hydrological measure of local drought to provide new evidence on the links between climate and violent conflict. Among the main findings:

· The link between rainfall, temperature and civil war found in previous studies is not established.

· A measure of drought known as the Palmer Drought Severity Index describes water stress in a more satisfactory way than simple measures of rainfall and temperature.

· There is a weak positive link between drought and civil war.

Climatic anomalies might have disastrous consequences for countries with a scarce supply of fresh water and economies that depend on local agriculture. One of the worst possible consequences of climatic anomalies is an increase in the occurrence of violent conflicts. Because mortality alone from civil war amounts to five million people since World War II, assessing the relationship between drought and the likelihood of violent conflict is of crucial importance for developing countries.

This study uses a hydrological index of drought, which is a function of the duration and magnitude of abnormal moisture deficiency. It captures meteorological conditions on the ground. It also captures important effects that were missing in previous studies: the effect of rainfall and temperature depends on the climate history, the interactions between rainfall and temperature (for example, low rainfall is more important in hot years) and the local characteristics of the soil.

The new study first replicates previous analyses on the link between rainfall, temperature and civil war. A link between these variables cannot be established. The hydrological index of drought is then used and it is shown that drought weakly increases the likelihood of civil war.

To provide insights on the channels that may link drought and violent conflict, the analysis considers various economic and political factors. Among the usual suspects, lower agricultural yield and higher food prices are found to be associated with drought. But national production indicators – GDP per capita, GDP growth and agricultural income per capita – are not correlated with drought.

The main conclusion of the study is that evidence for a positive link between drought and civil war is weak. To obtain firm conclusions on the climate-conflict relationship, scholars need richer data.

ENDS

Notes for editors: ‘Drought and Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa’ by Mathieu Couttenier and Raphael Soubeyran is published in the March 2014 issue of the Economic Journal.

Mathieu Couttenier is at the University of Lausanne. Raphael Soubeyran is at the Institut National de Recherche en Agronomie (INRA) and at the LAboratoire Montpellierain d’Economie Théorique et Appliquée (LAMETA).

For further information: contact Mathieu Couttenier on +41 21 692 34 84 (email : mathieu.couttenier@unil.ch); Raphael Soubeyran on +33 4-99-61-25-35 (email: soubeyra@supagro.inra.fr); or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh).