Was It the Weather? Lower Rainfall-Darfur Violence Connection Tenuous
Chair, Department of Economics
Associate Professor of Economics
The conflict in Darfur — which has killed 200,000 people and uprooted more than two million since it began in 2003 — has been cited as a consequence of global warming by, among others, former Vice President Al Gore and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. They argue, in essence, that climate change has reduced rainfall in this part of Africa, causing a violent confrontation over scarce resources. Michael Kevane, chair of the Department of Economics at SCU’s Leavey School of Business, disagrees.
“There’s no reason to say this is the world’s first climate-change crisis,” Kevane says, “and doing that takes away responsibility for some of the actors responsible for the violence.”
Along with Leslie Gray of SCU’s Environmental Studies Institute, Kevane has written a paper, “Rainfall in Darfur Prior to the Conflict of 2003.” It was presented at a political economy workshop at Stanford in December 2007 and is now being finalized for future publication.
The paper should not be taken as an anti-global warming document, he says. Rather, it attempts to demonstrate that the rainfall records for the area, backed by other information, show that in this case the climate change argument “has no compelling evidence at present.”
Darfur is a fairly dry region in Western Sudan, where average rainfall is 6-8 inches per year in the north and 9-10 inches in the south. In the 30-year period preceding the conflict, from 1972-2002, rainfall in Northern Darfur was down from the prior 30-year period, which is the basis for the climate-change argument.
But Kevane argues the decline is not out of line with historic rainfall variations that people have coped with before, and that no violence occurred after the exceptionally dry years of 1984 and 1990, which would argue against the idea of a “weather shock” starting the violence. Furthermore, satellite images culled from the last 25 years show an overall greening trend that suggests the area’s biomass has been holding up despite the reduced rain.
The climate-change theory, he says, also doesn’t take into account how people adapt to different weather patterns. “There’s a wide range of livelihood strategies that people can pursue. One of them is urbanization, because people in cities are less dependent on rainfall. In fact, during this period, we’ve seen a lot of circular migration with people moving back and forth between the cities and the countryside.”
He adds that the largest cities in Darfur have nearly quadrupled in size since 1972 and now have populations in the 200,000 range.
Kevane and Gray have both spent considerable time in Sudan and Kevane is generally considered a leading economic authority on that nation. In his view, the explanation for the violence is human behavior rather than the weather: the governmental elite, based in the capital of Khartoum, has consistently marginalized peripheral groups, such as the people of Darfur, and has repeatedly shown its willingness to use large-scale violence against civilian populations.
“There has been a 50-year pattern of violence that has enmeshed that part of Africa — Libya, Chad, Sudan,” he says. “The political explanation for the violence is that an attack on the airport by rebel groups in February 2003 triggered a reaction that led to the janjawid (an irregular militia based in the north) attacking the populations in the south. “Every Sudan expert I know of is comfortable with the political explanation.”