by Austin Michael Bodetti. He researches the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia and visited South Sudan in January 2016.
Great powers such as China and the United States may have the most sway over the direction of the environmental movement, but climate change remains no less dire a problem for the developing countries of the Global South. South Sudan knows this unfortunate fact all too well.
South Sudan sits at the intersection of ecological and humanitarian crises. The South Sudanese Civil War has raged under the international community’s radar for five years, obscured by better-known conflicts — among them the Libyan and Yemeni Civil Wars. Attempts at peace talks have failed to bring an end to a conflict characterized by brutality and sectarianism. Most South Sudanese politicians and foreign diplomats, meanwhile, have struggled to find time to deal with environmental issues in a developing country that has faced a variety of more violent challenges since it became independent in 2011.
While the news media has spent little time dwelling on the effects of global warming on South Sudan, intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have begun sounding the alarm in a bid to mobilize the international community to action there. “The man-made crisis in South Sudan has pushed the country back on multiple fronts, hampering agricultural production, disrupting livelihoods and the coping abilities of communities”, wrote Biplove Choudhary, UNDP Team Leader of Human Development and Inclusive Growth in South Sudan, and Jean-Luc Stalon, UNDP Deputy Country Director for South Sudan. “These are but few of several compelling reasons as to why climate change risks in South Sudan should be a pressing worry at this point in time for the policy makers and international partners”.
Choudhary and Stalon noted that the South Sudanese Civil War had exacerbated environmental issues already present in the world’s youngest nation-state, including deforestation and drought. The pair also observed a discouraging example of irony: the East African country has barely contributed to global warming, yet South Sudan remains among the countries with the most to lose from climate change.
The conflict in the South Sudanese countryside has precluded South Sudanese from pursuing many forms of employment, forcing them to look to ad-hoc industries that take a heavy toll on the natural environment, such as illegal logging. This development in turn leads to deforestation, accelerating global warming in South Sudan to what the UNDP has recorded as 2.5 times the rate in the rest of the world. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) found that South Sudan will lose all its forest cover in sixty years if this trend continues, pointing to a future where the country remains at climate change’s mercy (“War-Torn South Sudan at Grave Risk on Climate Change“, VOA, 18.07.2017).
The UNEP has estimated that “droughts, floods, pollution, and conflicts” tied to global warming could come to affect as many as 90 percent of South Sudanese, a startling statistic. The UNEP has grown so concerned that it has even started addressing South Sudan’s environmental issues on Twitter (see below). “The state of ongoing strife in South Sudan is the major impediment to good governance that would ensure the productive use of its natural resources and the protection of its environmental assets,” the UNEP concluded in a 2018 “state of the environment and outlook report“. “Indeed, the lack of strong, effective institutions for peacefully managing competing claims to local power and control, and ownership of livestock and natural resources is an important factor in the ongoing conflict”.
The World Food Programme (WFP), another UN agency involved in South Sudan, has gone as far as labeling the War in Darfur, which neighbors South Sudan, “the first climate change conflict”. The WFP warned that the South Sudanese Civil War had much in common with its Darfuri counterpart.
Foreign news agencies have reported that the South Sudanese Civil War has even prevented South Sudanese meteorologists from documenting weather in the region, limiting the ability of South Sudanese farmers to plan around climate change, which has caused damaging droughts in South Sudan. However daunting these warning signs, the UN has shown that timely action by South Sudanese and their allies in the international community can mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In the 2014 report “Climate Risk and Food Security in South Sudan: Analysis of Climate Impacts on Food Security and Livelihoods“, the WFP assessed that “adaptation to drought through water management strategies, supported by introduction of drought-tolerant crops and crop varieties can play a critical role in reducing the vulnerability of at-risk populations”, adding that “adaptation options should also consider a range of uncertainties associated with climate variability and the timescales of climate impacts”.
In South Sudan, #climatechange could exacerbate access to safe water, lead to poor sanitation and food insecurity. Work is underway to address these issues and the effects of years of strife on its ecosystems. https://t.co/UkuJZE4yOX
— UN Environment (@UNEnvironment) 13. Juni 2018
For its part, the UNEP oversees a well-developed environmental organization in South Sudan, having first established a footprint there in 2009 and organizing a campaign dubbed “Keep Juba Clean, Keep Juba Green” in 2010, a year before South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan. The UNEP launched a follow-up campaign in celebration of the country’s nationhood in 2015.
The UNDP has remained active in South Sudan for even longer, offering it assistance since the bloodiest phase of the Second Sudanese Civil War thirty years ago. The UNDP’s, UNEP’s, and WFP’s history and infrastructure will prove crucial in helping South Sudan overcome global warming. Though these UN agencies appear well equipped to tackle South Sudan’s environmental issues, only the leaders of the international community wield the diplomatic resources to bring an end to the East African country’s persistent civil war, an outgrowth of South Sudan’s war of independence from Sudan. China, India, the U.S., and other countries with ties to the government in Juba can use their influence to compel the South Sudanese factions to come to the negotiating table, a critical prerequisite for nationwide action on climate change in South Sudan. Ignoring the conflict will only ensure that it worsens.
If the UN and the great powers succeed in ending the South Sudanese Civil War and organizing a response to global warming in South Sudan, environmentalists in Libya, Syria, and Yemen can reapply that model to their own countries’ civil wars in coordination with the international community. Otherwise, conflict and climate change will continue to work hand in hand in the Global South.