Water, food, shelter – in the hierarchy of human needs, it starts and ends right there. Without such necessities, conflict is not only likely but inevitable, writes Leonie Joubert.
The man’s name has become faded with lack of use, his face replaced by more recent, indeed more useful memories. But the maroon waistcoat, gold trim, still flash boldly through the mind’s recesses. A school teacher and poet, he’d say of his credentials to passing customers. That was before he left home.
Six years after Rwanda imploded, the man was still peddling a living on the economic fringe of a Cape Town parking lot. He didn’t know whether he would ever return home or even whether his family was alive.
Somewhere beyond the debates about tribalism and ethnic divides which were thought to be the root of the genocide, a subtext whispered: the region had the highest population growth rate on the continent; more and more people were swelling into a finite space. Something had to give. The fault line of ethnicity provided the weakest seam along which the community burst apart. Nearly a million Tutsis were killed by the Hutu Interahamwe in three months.
The writer Norman Cousins once said that history is a vast early warning system.
Sadly, someone forgot to send the memo to Darfur, where conflict over natural resources has caused a similar fracture along ethnic lines. Darfur is being called “Rwanda in slow motion” - 400 000 people have now been slaughtered in five years and two million driven from their homes by raids from Arab janjawid militia.
What’s driving the conflict? Desertification.
It started with back-to-back droughts across the Horn of Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Settled farmers, in the south, and nomads in the north, were claiming more and more space to meet their need for fuel, food and grazing. They slashed and burned their way deeper into natural forests and veld, reducing the ground cover. Once the droughts came, the vegetation couldn’t recover. The wind swept exposed soil up into mobile dunes.
West Sudan turned into a desert. The nomads were forced south in search of water and grazing, and into direct conflict with the tribesman, prompting journalists to ask in 2006: “Is Darfur the first climate change conflict?”
The United Nations foresees rising conflicts and environmental refugees as people fight over land, water, food or shelter, particularly as climate change strips nature of its often over-stretched resources, amplifying tensions and even creating them.
A 2°C increase in temperature is the “warming guard rail” beyond which climate change becomes dangerous. But in arid and semiarid Africa, temperature increases of well below this threshold are expected to bring dramatic and dangerous changes to its natural spaces.
As for the Rwandan teacher, he was jettisoned by internal conflict; his family gone, his home lost, his job forgotten. Now he guards other people’s cars half a world away.