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More Tasks, More Resources, More Inclusion – Requirements for humanitarian assistance in times of increasing climate risks

Climate change is a threat to peace and security

Images of dried-up river beds, eroded farmland or flash floods are a powerful illustration of how environmental conditions in many regions of the world are being affected by climate change. Droughts and increasing resource scarcity are leading to the loss of formerly reliable sources of drinking water and pasture land, as well as threatening the already precarious food security of many people. Crop failures and hunger, the destruction of their homes, or intensifying conflicts over water and farmland – these dangers are felt particularly by people who are already among the world’s poorest. Although climate change is becoming more noticeable in the industrialized countries of North America and Europe, it is mainly the inhabitants of tropical and subtropical regions in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania who are facing its consequences. It seems almost cynical that the people who suffer the harshest consequences have contributed the least to global warming, in an international comparison. Cause and effect as well as causers and sufferers are often geographically and financially far apart. As Pope Francis points out: “When people are driven out because their local environment has become uninhabitable, it might look like a process of nature, something inevitable. Yet the deteriorating climate is very often the result of poor choices and destructive activity, of selfishness and neglect, that set humankind at odds with creation, our common home.”1 Since the end of the 1980s, there have been increasing reports of changes in the climate, with warnings of serious impacts. But only now is there a growing realization that climate change is becoming the biggest threat in the world, and also has many indirect consequences. The speed and magnitude of global warming are playing an ever more significant role, particularly in the emergence and intensification of humanitarian needs.2

Climate change calls for greater emergency relief and disaster assistance

The Global Climate Risk Index3 is a measure of how severely countries are affected by extreme weather such as floods, storms or heat waves. Puerto Rico, Myanmar and Haiti led the index with the greatest weather-related losses in the period from 2000 to 2019. Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Bahamas subsequently topped the list following catastrophic storms and flooding. In 2019, 97.6 million people were acutely affected by disasters resulting from extreme weather events.4 This came as the number of disasters recorded each year doubled from around 200 twenty years ago to more than 400 worldwide today. For humanitarian assistance, this inevitably means there are more tasks needing to be done. In drought areas, building water reservoirs, retention basins and cisterns will probably no longer be enough going forward, as dry periods become ever longer. In the future, large pipeline systems will be needed just to supply water to people affected during droughts in northern Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, for example. Or tankers will have to drive to drought regions instead. Since 1990, Somalia has experienced more than 30 climate-related crises, including 12 droughts and 19 floods – three times as many climate-related crises compared to the period from 1970 to 1990.5

In South Asia, a major change in the monsoon has been measured over the past decade: rainfall was more intense, while monsoon seasons were shorter and less predictable overall. In the future, a further “increase in total monsoon rainfall” is expected.6 In 2018, a “flood of the century” in the Indian state of Kerala had been preceded by other severe floods in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries in the region. In 2010, another “flood of the century” in Pakistan was responsible for millions of people losing their homes. But it is not only unpredictable monsoon rains that pose a flood hazard. Just recently, 200 scientists with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)7 published extensive studies on the effects of climate change in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan: if our planet continues to get hotter, then by the end of the century at least one-third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayas will melt. This is the site of the world’s third-largest ice reserves. These ice bodies feed Asia’s most important rivers, and supply water to around 1.9 billion people. If the glaciers melt, the water supply to these people is in jeopardy. As the ice melts, enormous volumes of water will flow down into the valleys, creating flood risks in combination with heavy rainfall. It should be noted that many events go unnoticed at international level, and the affected country or people generally have to deal with the damage on their own. Up to 80 percent of humanitarian aid funds is raised solely to mitigate suffering caused by existing wars and conflicts. 

Global armament is a double security risk

According to the Conflict Barometer published by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK)8, in 2020 the number of global wars grew from 15 to 21. Meanwhile, global military spending has been rising for the sixth year in a row. The expansion and renewal of armed forces and weapons systems swallowed up a record 1,981 billion U.S. dollars (about 1,644 billion euros) last year – an increase of 2.6 percent on 2019. With an annual budget of USD 718.7 billion, the United States continues to spend more than any other country. It is an unfortunate choice of priorities, as the Global Militarization Index of the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC) shows: a comparison with the Global Health Security Index reveals that less-militarized countries achieve better results overall in terms of health security, as the high level of resources spent on the military comes at the expense of health.9 The current consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic should serve as a warning for future and similar situations, such as the climate crisis.

Germany invested the seemingly small sum of USD 51.2 billion in its own military in 2019. However, this represented a ten percent increase in spending by the Federal Republic compared to the previous year, and was the largest increase among all EU states.10 Moreover, German arms exports have contributed significantly to the “militarization of the foreign policy of Arab countries”.11 Their share of total German arms exports has risen from 3.1 to 32 percent over the past 20 years. The increase in global armament levels poses a double security risk: “It is not only about the destructive potential, which grows as more weapons are produced and unfolds whenever the calculation of mutual deterrence does not work out. It is also about the resources that are tied to global armament and therefore are not available for other, humanitarian tasks.”12 For example, the announced additional British defense spending comes at the expense of international aid.13

Climate risks engender and amplify fragility

The need for humanitarian assistance in wars and conflicts is intensified when disasters resulting from natural hazards and violent conflicts, including displacement, occur in parallel or influence one another mutually. Today, the majority of humanitarian funding is already directed toward so-called complex crises.14 Further studies15 indicate that future conflicts in the world will almost always involve a climate element. “Growing non-traditional security risks, such as climate change, are also rapidly changing the risk landscape,” according to a position statement by the German federal government’s Advisory Council on Civilian Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding.16 More frequent and more destructive extreme weather events contribute to the genesis of conflicts and amplify existing conflicts. In particular, climate-induced threats to livelihoods create the potential for escalations of violence. According to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), climate change intensifies the incidence of extremism as well as conflicts and violence. Mali, for example, has experienced a steady rise in temperatures since the 1960s. Global climate models predict they will rise by between 1.2 and 3.6 degrees Celsius by the end of the 2050s. These climatic changes will mainly affect poor sections of the population whose livelihoods are based on agriculture and animal farming. Where usable land is diminishing, water sources are drying up, and no alternative sources of income are created, conflicts are inevitable among a rapidly growing population. In a struggle for resources, it is easier for extremism and violence to take hold. It is said that in the Sahel zone, for example, the terrorist organization Al Qaeda specifically recruits young people who have fallen into financial difficulties. “Without integrating climate change, peacebuilding is hardly possible,” concludes security expert and co-author of the report, Florian Krampe.17 The Ecological Threat Register 2020 estimates that 31 countries are not sufficiently resilient to absorb the environmental and political changes that the coming decades will bring. The relationship between political conflicts and ecological threats can be a vicious circle, the effects of which may increasingly be felt by countries such as Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya, Pakistan and Iran in the future. Moreover, states like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and the Central African Republic face additional ecological threats on top of ongoing armed conflicts.18 Six of the ten largest UN peacekeeping operations in 2020 took place in countries that are the most vulnerable to climate change.19

Recent skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan attest to the great importance of water as a resource. They were triggered by a dispute over access to water resources on the Isfara river.20 Because of the dispute, two Caritas projects in the region are now barely accessible. On the Crimean peninsula, too, tensions over water are building up. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, at the end of the Nile river, may be a reason for Egypt to go to war. Downstream in Sudan, there is already less Nile water arriving than usual. Similarly, Iraq and Syria are water-dependent on others, as both the Euphrates and the Tigris come from Turkey, where the Ilisu Dam went into operation in 2018.21 Already, lower water levels and saltwater intrusion from the Persian Gulf have left the province of Basra in Iraq with almost no arable land. According to the Ecological Threat Register, more than one-third of countries will experience high or extreme water stress by 2040 – and this is now being felt in Latin America, too. Glaciers in the Cordillera Real region of Bolivia have lost 37 percent of their surface area since 1980. Yet millions of Bolivians rely on meltwater from the glaciers. For Peru and Columbia too, the glacial masses are a vital source of water – not only drinking water but also water for agriculture and power generation. Losing such a resource will have dramatic consequences.

Displaced in their own country

In addition to people who have been displaced for political or social reasons and are in need of protection, in the future there will also be those who are displaced by the consequences of climate change. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, more than 140 million people will be permanently displaced within the borders of their own country because of climate change, and will have to migrate.22 Through involuntary migration from rural to urban areas, people experience a loss of their cultural heritage. As a consequence, they face higher rents and insecure low-wage employment in congested big cities. At the same time, the existing “acute and pressing reasons [for granting protection] under the Geneva Convention should not be extended carelessly,”23 as VENRO (the umbrella organization of development and humanitarian non-governmental organizations in Germany) put it back in 2009. Additional protection mechanisms are needed for people displaced by climate change, such as humanitarian visas or easier access to immigrant working visas. As an international instrument of contemporary climate policy, the German Advisory Council on Global Change proposes a climate passport for humane migration.24 Such measures are a matter of global justice, and were brought before the German Bundestag in 2019.25 However, these considerations fail to include those who (have to) stay behind, many of them women and elderly people. Nor can the loss of cultural heritage be made up for in monetary terms.

It is mostly African countries that are referred to as being at a particularly high risk. That is not surprising, since according to the Conflict Barometer, sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest number of wars. A combination of climate-related crises and armed conflicts has seen the number of internally displaced people in this region double within the last three years. In 2018, six of the world’s ten worst floods were recorded here. Five of the world’s eight worst food crises, now already being caused by a combination of climate change and conflicts, occurred in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan. Without immediate relief efforts, the already dire humanitarian situation in Somalia will be made even worse by a looming drought, and this will become a major cause of displacement with a rise in so-called “protection risks”. By the end of the year, at least 3.4 million people are expected to be affected by the drought. If the “gu” rains begin, they will be short and heavy, causing flash floods as the parched soil cannot absorb the water. Access to clean water is affected by its scarcity, and its cost has risen by 60 percent in some areas. People are forced to travel even further in search of clean water, or they attempt to escape scarcity by resorting to negative coping strategies, such as making cutbacks in other areas of life, e.g. spending less on food, health or school education. Or they have to find ways to generate more income, for example by clearing forest areas and processing the wood into saleable charcoal, or hastily selling or slaughtering animals, in spite of falling prices, or marrying off family members. As grazing land becomes depleted, livestock farmers turn to cereals to feed their animals. This in turn has pushed grain prices up by 30 percent. Relief efforts have already been stepped up in the hardest-hit areas. However, funding bottlenecks remain a major challenge, as does safe access to these regions. So far only 15 percent of the aid proposed in the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2021 has been pledged. Dumping external food aid on local markets is not an option here, as undercutting local producers’ prices can be very risky. Instead, it is possible to support local food markets in the countries, for example by buying regional products.26 

Local peace potential and inclusion

A study by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) found that the assumption that violent conflicts are due to disputes breaking out between settled farmers and nomadic herders (pastoralists) is far too simplistic and can lead to misinterpretations.27 Intersections exist in only two percent of all violent conflicts that were considered. There has been no marked increase in farmer-herder conflicts over the past ten years. In the period from 1997 to 2017, 173,000 civilians were killed in conflicts in a region comprising 16 countries with a total population of 580 million. Of this number, 10,000 deaths are said to be due to conflicts involving pastoralists. Farmer-herder conflicts are present in many countries and will sometimes intensify due to resource scarcity. On the other hand, these tensions have rarely escalated – which shows that these two diverse groups were doing peace work and conflict prevention long before concepts like “conflict-sensitive adaptation” or “environmental peacebuilding” even existed in international cooperation. The realization that it is essential to involve the people affected by climate change in decision-making processes must precede considerations of how to counter climate change as a security risk. The inclusion of local potential determines the effectiveness and sustainability of peace and security processes: where civil society participates in negotiations, the risk of peace agreements failing is reduced by 64 percent.28

Women’s participation still represents an untapped potential. Their participation in negotiations raises the chance that a peace agreement will be reached at all.29 Similarly, the likelihood that an agreement will last at least two years goes up by 20 percent; and that it will still be in force after fifteen years, by 35 percent.30 However, the decisive factor here is not participation alone, but rather the opportunities and willingness to exercise influence and advocacy.31 The Columbian peace agreement is a shining example, coming after more than 50 years of armed conflict. Implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda – the United Nations international framework for the full, equal and effective participation of all genders in peace and security – is rightly a priority of the German federal government. The response to international crises should be gender-equitable, and the needs and interests of women and girls should be better taken into account in humanitarian assistance, crisis management and reconstruction measures.

The most urgent tasks in times of climate change

Humanitarian assistance must not be limited to alleviating suffering and mitigating symptoms. There are many options for technical and infrastructural provisions as part of “adapting to climate change”, depending on the nature of the particular hazard situation. For example, it is possible to build dams and protective structures in areas threatened by flooding, or install cisterns, water retention basins and water pipeline systems in drought regions. In the medium and long term, changes to farming methods, drought-resistant crops or protective planting against erosion caused by the wind, water and sun can also help guard against the effects of climate change. Where adaptation measures are no longer sufficient, people will require assistance with planned resettlement to secure regions. But these activities will only be truly effective and sustainable if they enable people to prepare for climate change themselves, protecting themselves against disasters and other threats. Disaster preparedness – or adaptation to climate change – therefore requires far more than technical and infrastructural solutions. It must take social and cultural conditions into account, include people at risk from disasters in its concepts, draw on experience gathered locally and regionally, and thus involve society as a whole in disaster preparedness. More than before, the central characteristics of aid organizations will have to include socio-spatial integration and social inclusivity. It sometimes becomes clear only on second glance why it is necessary to strengthen the social component within disaster preparedness as a whole. For example when engineers have built a dam, but it is not clear who will maintain it. Or when rescue boats are available to use during a flood, but no-one knows where older people or people with disabilities who need specific help actually live. So professional social work is required at the socio-spatial and community level to implement permanent disaster preparedness in communities, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.

Despite all the focus on local conditions and specific regional possibilities, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that climate change is a global phenomenon – and therefore also requires a globally coordinated approach. The key points of reference are the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. When it comes to the question of who should bear the necessary costs, we inevitably run into questions of (climate) justice: How can losses and damage caused by climate change be compensated? Who should pay for preparedness and adaptation? No satisfactory answers have been found yet.

On the contrary, while climate change is advancing and millions of people around the world are at this moment starving, have no access to clean water, and are being forced to migrate, nearly 300 million U.S. dollars are spent every day on nuclear weapons.32 This prioritization is another factor that makes climate change the greatest threat to peace and security.



1 Vatican (2021): “Pastoral Guidelines on Climate Displaced People”, March 30, 2021, (all links accessed May 20, 2021); Pope France spoke of an “ecocide”; see: “‘Umweltsündenʼ: Papst prüft Aufnahme in Katechismus”,

2 IPCC (2018): Global Warming of 1.5 °C Summary for Policymakers,

3 Germanwatch (2021): “Globaler Klima-Risiko-Index 2021”,; the report investigates human impact (fatalities) and direct economic losses.

4 IFRC (2020): World Disasters Report: Come Heat or High Water. Tackling the humanitarian impacts of the climate crisis together. Geneva.

5 UN-OCHA (2021): “SOMALIA Drought Conditions Update”,

6 IPCC (2014): Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Frequently Asked Questions – Working group I contribution to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Bern, p. 60.

7 Wester, Philippus et al. (eds.) (2019): The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People. Cham.

8 HIIK (2021): Conflict Barometer 2020,

9 BICC (2020): Global Militarization Index 2020,

10 Even a country like Sweden, which is committed to neutrality, has embarked on a massive armament program and will increase its budget by 40 percent by 2025.

11 Hüllinghorst, Yannik and Roll, Stephan (2021): “Deutsche Rüstungsexporte und die Militarisierung der Außenpolitik arabischer Staaten”, Translated from German.

12 Schulze, Tobias (2021): “Aufrüstung als Sicherheitsrisiko”,!5762705/. Translated from German.

13 “The defence secretary has said £16.5bn is ‘enough’ to modernise the armed forces but refused to say how much of the new defence funding would be taken from the overseas aid budget.” Pidd, Helen (2020): “UK defence: £16.5bn enough to modernise armed forces, says minister”,

14 See e.g. ALNAP (2018): “SOHS 2018. Data story: The state of the system in 9 charts”,

15 See e.g.: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research or EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris.

16 Der Beirat der Bundesregierung Zivile Krisenprävention und Friedensförderung (s.a.): “Stellungnahme zum Bericht über die Umsetzung der Leitlinien ‘Krisen verhindern, Konflikte bewältigen, Frieden fördern’”, Translated from German.

17 Römer, Jörg (2021): “Wie der Klimawandel Terror und Gewalt fördert”, Translated from German.

18 Institute of Economics & Peace (2020): Ecological Threat Register. Sydney.  

19 Global Observatory (2021): “Emerging Lessons from Implementing Climate-Related Peace and Security Mandates”,

20 According to the 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (, every country has the sovereign right to exploit its own natural resources as long as this does not cause damage to the environment of other states or areas beyond national jurisdiction.

21 Alkhafaji, Hayder (2018): “Iraq’s Water Crisis: Challenges and Solutions”,

22 World Bank (2021): “Climate Change Could Force Over 140 Million to Migrate Within Countries by 2050”,

23 VENRO (2009): Migration zulassen – Flüchtlinge schützen. Bonn. Translated from German.

24 Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung (2018): “In Nansens Fußstapfen. Ein Klimapass für menschenwürdige Migration”. In: Politikpapier Nr. 9,

25 Deutscher Bundestag: Drucksache 19/15781. Berlin. December 10, 2019,

26 For example: “Afrique Verte – Sécurité et Souveraineté Alimentaires au Sahel”,

27 Toulmin, Camilla and Krätli, Saverio (2020): “Farmer-herder conflict: open your eyes, change the narrative, find solutions”,

28 Nilsson, Desirée (2012): “Anchoring the Peace: Civil Society Actors in Peace Accords and Durable Peace.” In: International Interactions 38, no. 2, p. 258.

29 Krause, Jana et al. (2018): “Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations and the Durability of Peace.” In: International Interactions, 44:6,

31 Stone, Laurel: “Quantitative Analysis of Women’s Participation in Peace Processes”, quoted in UN Women (2015): “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace: A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325”,

31 Paffenholz, Thania et al. (2016): Making Women Count – Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on the Quality and Sustainability of Peace Negotiations and Implementation. Geneva.

32 ICAN: “Kosten und Ausgaben”,



Dr. Oliver Müller holds a doctorate in theology and political science. After studying at Freiburg im Breisgau and Lima/Peru, he began his professional career in public relations and fundraising. He is currently the head (International Director) of Caritas international, the emergency and disaster relief organization of the German Caritas Association, based in Freiburg – a position he has held since the fall of 2006. Dr. Oliver Müller focuses on humanitarian aid, global social development, and building civil society structures in Eastern Europe as well as in the global South.