Will We Heed the Wake-Up Call in Africa's Resource Conflicts?

Oxfam's recent pronouncement that refugee camps in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia are "barely fit for humans" has drawn needed attention to the suffering of millions in the Horn of Africa. But westerners must do more than sympathize with Africans. We must seek to understand the causes of their predicaments: a deadly intersection of climate change, war, and displacement.

Humanitarian catastrophes in the Sahara and the Horn remind us of the stark choice before us: as a widening circle of resource conflict threatens political upheaval across entire regions, we can either address climate change now, or increasingly find ourselves inhabiting a hotter and more violent world.

Consider Chad. Last year, rebels fought the government in the streets of the capital and were only barely defeated. Chad and Sudan trade cross-border attacks. The genocide in Darfur sends refugees pouring into eastern Chad, where competition for scarce water supplies causes conflicts with local residents.

Many believe that the root cause of violence in Darfur is also resource conflict - or as Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai puts it, "a struggle over controlling an environment that can no longer support all the people who must live on it."

Chad is not the only zone of collateral damage in Darfur's orbit. In the Central African Republic, rebels allegedly backed by Sudan attack CAR's government forces. That sends more refugees fleeing to Chad. Earlier this summer, 17,000 new arrivals joined the 56,000 refugees from CAR already inside Chad. A huge stream of refugees, flowing from two sources, will test the ability of Chad's government to control borders, respond to rebellions, and manage relationships with its own people. CAR, in turn, is under pressure from refugees fleeing the civil war in Uganda.

As temperatures climb, survival will grow more difficult for refugees - and conflicts will increase apace.

Now consider Somalia. While pirates dominate ungoverned waters, what Oxfam calls Africa's worst humanitarian crisis is unfolding inside Somalia: an estimated one million people are internally displaced, and millions more lack food. Somalia's would-be government, battling a formidable Islamist insurgency, cannot help them.

Violence in Somalia destabilizes all the countries in the Horn of Africa. Longtime enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea use Somalia to fight a proxy war. Somalis seek refuge in Ethiopia, but Ethiopia, which saw bloody clashes around elections in 2005 and may see more in advance of next year's elections, can hardly accommodate another source of political stress. Internally displaced Somalis crowd near the Kenyan border and thousands more cross it, even as Kenya grapples with the aftermath of last year's electoral violence. Somalis even strive to reach Yemen by boat; some die in the process, while successful arrivals add to tensions in a country that faces its own threats of rebellion and terrorism.

Environmental crises, exacerbated by climate change, compound these tragedies. The worst drought in a decade is claiming lives throughout the Horn. 12 million Ethiopians need food aid. In Eritrea, government restrictions prevent aid workers from properly assessing the impact of drought, but observers estimate nearly half of the population may be malnourished. Meanwhile, drought leaves millions in northern Kenya without a livelihood.

These crises have not just regional, but global impact. Violence in Chad and Somalia has already compelled western nations to intervene with aid and arms. When rebellion raged last year in Chad, France deployed military aircraft to patrol the Chad-Sudan border. Fearful of terrorist safe havens, the US has launched several missile strikes on Somali targets. In June, NATO announced a long-term effort to confront piracy in the Red Sea.

Rich nations have failed to respond effectively to Somali statelessness, the genocide in Darfur, and the threat of climate change itself. Now this inaction returns to haunt us. As environmental calamities turn potential crises into realities, and ongoing crises into full-blown nightmares, it becomes easier to see what NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer meant when he said "climate change could confront us with a whole range of unpleasant developments - developments which no single nation-state has the power to contain." Resource conflicts in Chad, Somalia, and Sudan foreshadow a coming wave of strife, and the west may not be prepared for the chaos.