Natural Disasters Spark Civil Wars


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

corn in drought
It is when natural disasters affect food supplies or the economy that they lead to wars. bibiphoto/shutterstock

The long-standing belief that natural disasters, particularly drought, feed armed conflict, now has scientific support. The findings represent a warning that the worst aspects of global warming may not lie in the direct effects, as bad as they may be, but in the wars that will start as a result.

The influence of a hostile environment on conflict has been noticed by historians for generations. Children learning the reasons for the wars that scarred South African history were once advised by teachers: “When in doubt, blame drought”. Water shortages exacerbated by climate change are thought to have triggered the current Syrian war, with all the appalling consequences worldwide. Confirmation for these casual observations has now come in the form of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science


A team led by Dr Carl-Friedrich Schleussner of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research looked at all the outbreaks of ethnic conflict between 1980 and 2010. “Although each conflict is the result of an individual context-specific mixture of interconnected factors, ethnicity appears to play a prominent and almost ubiquitous role in many of them,” the authors wrote. The dying out of the ideological conflicts of the mid-twentieth century has seen a return to the historical norm in this regard.

Using a mathematical technique known as “event coincidence analysis,” the authors concluded that “about 23 percent of conflict outbreaks in ethnically highly fractionalized countries robustly coincide with climatic calamities.”

Although it doesn’t seem like it from the news, war has been in decline for many decades and is now close to the lowest rate in history, relative to population. Nevertheless, the paper observes that “armed conflicts are still among the biggest threats to human societies.”

The causes of war are numerous, with poverty and income inequality particularly established. Schleussner wanted to see if climate-related natural disasters could be added to the list, so he measured the economic effects of disasters (such as floods and droughts) and compared the timing with wars.


The authors argue this is a more robust method than previous studies, which relied on temperature or rainfall statistics, rather than looking at the way these events affected the economy. Heavy rains or a long dry period in areas that can cope with such conditions are far less likely to cause war than similar events where they disrupt food supplies.

The analysis not only demonstrates that climatic disasters represent an additional risk factor for the outbreak of wars, but identifies the most vulnerable areas – those with nations already sharply divided on ethnic lines and particularly vulnerable to climate shifts. The authors point to “projected drying in already drought-prone regions such as North Africa and [the Middle East].”

“It is clear that the roots of these conflicts, as for armed conflicts in general, are case specific and not directly associated with climate-related natural disasters,” the paper concludes. “Nevertheless, such disruptive events have the potential to amplify already existing societal tensions and stressors and thus to further destabilize several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions.”


  • tag
  • climate change,

  • resource conflict,

  • causes of war