School of Global Studies

Divided Environments

Jan Selby and Clemens Hoffmann


In recent years, there has been mounting concern amongst scientific and policy making communities that climate change may prove a ‘threat multiplier’ to international conflict. The UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne, for instance, has warned that if climate change goes unchallenged, the result will be a ‘Hobbesian nightmare scenario’, where life for many more people is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Many have argued that we have already witnessed the ‘first climate change conflict’ – which is how the war in Darfur from 2003 is often described. The most frequently cited argument about the likely conflict impacts of climate change relates to its potential impacts on water resources. It has often been argued in the past that increased competition over scarce water resources may cause or contribute to inter-state and civil ‘water wars’. Many argue that in an era of climate change, the risk of such water wars is greater than ever.

Clean waterThis project seeks to evaluate this contemporary orthodoxy by examining the links between climate change, water resources and conflict within three important ‘divided environments’ – Cyprus, Israel-Palestine and Sudan. All three of these have been sites of protracted violent conflict. In addition, all three are geographically partitioned territories, and have all been sites of ongoing or stalled peace processes. What impacts, we ask, have water and climate change issues played within these conflicts, partitions and peace processes? And what impacts might we expect them to have in the future?

Key findings

The conflict potentials of water scarcity and climate change are far less significant than is often claimed. Water problems are not central causes of conflict within Cyprus or Israel-Palestine, and even in Sudan have a lesser impact than is often claimed. There is little evidence so far that global climate change has contributed to conflict within Cyprus, Israel-Palestine or Sudan, and the claim that the Darfur war was the ‘first climate change conflict’ is wildly overblown. Future population growth, economic development and attendant resource pressures will not necessarily make water-related conflicts more likely, and they may make them less likely. Nationalist and sub-national identities, repressive and/or exclusivist regimes, geopolitical machinations, uneven development, militarisation and oil have all been much more significant causes of conflict, and are likely to continue to be so in future. The widespread view that climate change will be a ‘threat multiplier’ to conflict is deterministic and mistaken.

In fact, within politically divided environments, local water and climate vulnerabilities are more effects than causes of conflict. Political conflict and violence in Cyprus, Israel-Palestine and Sudan have themselves had significant environmental consequences. Violence and displacement have caused direct environmental degradation, and in addition, protracted political conflict has resulted in poor environmental mismanagement, and has inhibited cooperation. The distinctive patterns of environmental vulnerability found within Cyprus, Israel-Palestine and Sudan are in each case correlated with and determined by the ‘high politics’ of conflict. Moreover, as each of our cases demonstrates, ‘climate conflict’ and ‘water wars’ discourse may have a negative impact – distracting attention away from the central causes of conflict, and providing a range of problematic new policy narratives and justifications for local conflict participants as well as international actors. 

The Research

This project is part of the 14-partner EU-funded study ‘Climate Change, Hydro-Conflicts and Human Security (CLICO)’. Fieldwork is being undertaken by Dr Jan Selby and Dr Clemens Hoffmann within three ‘divided environments’ – Cyprus, Israel-Palestine, and Sudan.


Jan Selby and Clemens Hoffmann, 'Divided Environments: Rethinking Water Security, Climate Change and Conflict' (IB Tauris, forthcoming).

Jan Selby and Clemens Hoffmann, ‘Water, Conflict and Migration in the Eastern Mediterranean’, UK Government Office for Science Foresight Project on Migration and Global Environment Change, 2011