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Unpacking climate, development and conflict: Insights for contexts of FCACs

Article by Dr Naho Mirumachi and Marine Hautsch

December 6, 2021

Unpacking climate, development and conflict: Insights for contexts of FCACs

Climate change and pitfalls of low carbon development

The recently concluded discussions of the COP26 climate summit highlighted that progress towards meeting the 1.5C target could not come any sooner. Rapid, decisive action has been called upon by those states and peoples affected the most. Emission cuts need to be revised and nations need to redouble their efforts at limiting temperature rise. Side events at the summit featured low carbon strategies, ranging from renewable energy expansion, addressing deforestation and low carbon agriculture plans. Low carbon development will continue to be an attractive option for developing countries whereby two objectives of enhancing economic growth and reducing carbon emissions can be met.[1]


In fragile and conflict affected countries (FCACs) climate change is one of the many factors that need to be contended with. Nevertheless, impacts from climate change can be wide-ranging and defy sectoral approaches, making it a very ‘wicked’ problem to contend with.[2] No easy solution can be found and coordinating across sectors makes for complex work. Moreover, it has been shown that doing something about climate change can cause perverse outcomes, further intensifying tensions and inflating grievances. This is because there is uneven distribution of costs and benefits from low carbon development between individuals, communities and even states.[3] The experience of low carbon development is not homogenous. Instead, it is differentiated between these actors and brings out the underlying structural inequalities, be they related to ethnicity, gender or class. In many FCACs, this is compounded by political divides and large disparities relating to poverty.


Leveraging conflict sensitive approaches

Various donors and implementing agencies have taken up the notion of conflict sensitivity to better understand how for example, development interventions, not limited to climate mitigation or adaptation, may produce harmful effects. Operational guidelines and toolboxes exist to help avert triggering violence and to fulfil the ‘do no harm’ principle.[4] The UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) is noted as enhancing its practice of conflict sensitivity analysis and ensuring programmes remain dynamic to contextual changes.[5] In this article, we argue that conflict sensitivity in the context of climate and development identifies not only propensity for conflict but also helps uncover the significance of tensions emerging from development interventions. In other words, consideration needs to be given to insecurity as being a barrier to development – ranging from economic to education opportunities – as well as affecting individuals’ improvement of their own capabilities.[6]


The benefits of applying conflict sensitivity are clear. Lessons learned from past examples of investing in renewable energy show that, if conflict sensitive approaches are not taken, then existing patterns of violence are reinforced, especially in the contexts of FCACs. The Gibe III dam in Ethiopia on the Omo River is an instructive case. UK involvement in this project has been questioned over the years, as resettlement of people affected has been problematic and criticised as far from satisfactory.[7] As a large-scale renewable electricity infrastructure located upstream of Lake Turkana, there has been an array of contestations over the costs and distribution of benefits.[8] There is controversy that the dam does not supply the energy needs of local households and thus does not serve much-needed rural electrification. It has also been claimed that the irrigation benefits from the dam are being used for cash crop production for one of the world’s largest sugar cane plantations instead of food staples in a region facing food insecurity. [9] There are multiple ethnic groups who rely on a range of livelihoods including fisheries, pastoralism and small-scale farming in this region, and a history of conflict over access to water involving small arms.[10] The project brought to the fore trade-offs between water, energy and food security that were not accurately considered in the environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) of the project.


The impacts of the dam are not merely technical calculations about water, energy and food security but require contextualised analysis embedded in local security issues. The dam impacted water levels, which had cascading effects for local livelihoods and ecosystems: it intensified water scarcity for the 300,000 individuals who rely on the lake’s resources.[11] This production of scarcity was wrapped up in armed violence between ethnic groups—there are a reported 17 ethnic groups in the Lower Omo Valley (Ethiopia) and Lake Turkana (Kenya)–, which further exacerbates competition for resources.[12] Despite this existing condition of instability, there was a problem of inclusion of communities’ concerns.[13] The trade-offs of dam construction needed to be understood through the interests of the communities relying on the Omo River and Lake Turkana.


Furthermore, applying conflict sensitivity perspectives extends to understanding transboundary implications. The construction of the dam inevitably resulted in withdrawal of water from the lake. This had knock-on effects on cross-border movements of the semi-nomadic groups affected and increased conflict, which spilled across the Kenyan border as they sought water and pasture. The ESIA neglected integrated costs of the project, especially its transboundary impact of Lake Turkana water availability.


The Gibe III dam project resulted in variegated costs and benefits for different stakeholders. Had a conflict sensitive lens been applied rigorously at the planning and implementation stage, there would be opportunities to consider not only avoidance of conflict repercussions but also enhancing project benefits for inclusive development.


Taking long-term views on development consequences

Good intensions can nevertheless result in harm, when actions towards adaptation can inadvertently place more burden. This is called ‘maladaptation’, which places disproportionate burden on those most vulnerable or incurs high opportunity costs.[14] Low carbon development projects that end up being maladaptive pose additional challenges. In FCACs, these actions can be problematic because they entrench existing tension and produce new vulnerabilities. It has been found that maladaptation impacts existing inequalities but also pose future risks as well.[15] Examples of modernisation of agriculture in places like Sub-Saharan Africa have showed that they can lead to environmental degradation, further resource conflict or exasperating livelihood conditions for those who are landless.[16]


Seemingly ‘successful’ interventions may not disrupt existing conditions of peace; they can maintain the status quo of conflict without causing regression. However, low carbon development in the form of infrastructure can pose challenges in the long term. Large-scale projects like the dam highlighted above have socio-economic and ecological impacts that manifest over time. Even small-scale projects can have impacts down the line. For example, in a case of mini solar grid expansion in the Turkana region in Kenya, which was funded by then-Department for International Development (DFID), it was found that the design and location of adaptation projects highly determine those who benefit from the investment in infrastructure.[17] While there is no overt conflict at this stage, instalment of infrastructure restricts pathways of how, when, where and at what price community members access green energy in the future. In FCACs, establishing long-term views are particularly challenging but needed when considering the heightened vulnerability of communities.


Scrutinising winners and losers

Just as with any kind of development, low carbon development creates winners and losers. Technical assessments of project impacts are often void of the qualitative outcomes to individuals. Here the notion of absolute and relative winners/losers is helpful to give a sense of the lived experiences of impacts. Absolute winners and losers refer to groups or individuals that experience gains or costs compared to their own status quo before the project. In contrast, relative winners and losers emerge through a comparative look across different groups or individuals.[18] For example, a relative winner is identified when other groups bear more costs of the project. A relative loser may not be worse off but nevertheless does not benefit from the project.


The absolute or relative nature matters because it sheds light on perceptions of individuals regarding their gains and losses induced by a project.[19] Furthermore, these perceptions can trigger contestations and thus a barrier to the implementation, much less success of a project.[20] Conflict sensitivity can better incorporate these grounded insights of absolute and relative winners/losers.


The largest wind power project in Africa is a case in point. The Lake Turkana Wind Farm in Kenya has been lauded as a ‘catalyst’ for renewable energy production.[21] With a capacity of 310 MW and over 300 turbines, it represents Kenya’s ambition towards securing green energy as well as private investment opportunities, which includes British investment companies as the largest shareholder.[22] But this project has been marred by delays and legal cases, with domestic and international concern about the negative impacts. In court, it was ruled that the land acquisition process was illegal, having dispossessed indigenous communities from their land.[23] Clearly, local communities are absolute losers in this regard, with the project company as an absolute winner having benefited from the land acquisition process. Furthermore, the subsequent impacts of realising the wind farm generates relative winners and losers in employment. Jobs were handed out to those of the Turkana tribe, whereas proportionally fewer workers from the Samburu ethnicity were employed; both tribes have been affected by displacement, along with several other groups.[24] In a context of existing tensions between pastoralist groups in this region, the creation of relative winners and losers adds to rivalries and hostility.


Intersecting climate change and security

The COP26 discussions called for urgent action in the face of climate crisis. The underlying narrative presents this future crisis as dangerous and calamitous. There is no denying that many individuals will suffer the consequences of droughts, flash flooding and sea level rise. But this narrative should not be used as an excuse to label countries and regions – particularly of the Global South – as violent, irresponsible or doomed to insecurity. The concerns of climate security are bound up in issues of migration, terrorism and other factors pointing to the fragility of a state. These concerns can reveal some deeply problematic assumptions about risks and threats emerging from ‘ungoverned spaces’ of insecurity.[25] Such notion underlies the geopolitical order that distinguishes the Global South as the ‘other’ and shapes the need for development assistance or humanitarian aid as mechanisms to maintain this geopolitical configuration.[26]


Rather than seeing regions or states as a faceless entity of danger or risk, there needs to be more attention paid to the vulnerable and marginalised individuals who are at the sharp end of climate impacts. The everyday is where climate and security intersect. The everyday struggles of maintaining a livelihood, the prevalent challenges of accessing clean water and recurrent blows to the way of life are real and pressing. Any kind of support towards climate mitigation and adaptation needs to consider their vulnerabilities.


Charting the way forward for UK engagement in FCACs

Predicting conflict or peace is not easy. There are no simple linear causations between climate change, conflict and various development programmes, whether for adaptation or mitigation. There is no guarantee how UK engagement will impact FCACs amidst multiple climate, political and socio-economic uncertainties. Nevertheless, it is possible to glean two key insights from experiences of low carbon development. First, there is a significant need to monitor how engagement affects conflict dynamics or contributes to peace. As the above sections highlighted, this monitoring needs take into consideration the qualitative impacts to individuals and over the long-term. Conflict sensitive approaches need to be maintained and revisited throughout programming.


Second, any kind of climate action needs to be embedded in broader development agendas and plans. The urgency to tackle climate change should not blinker the debate and efforts towards addressing the underlying structures of poverty, inequality and marginalisation. The inadvertent and perverse impacts of low carbon development show that a critical and integrated approach is needed to consider security and vulnerability. As the examples above showed, security considerations must include local, regional and transnational scales. In addition, understanding vulnerability requires multi-sectoral perspectives that include livelihoods, food, water and energy. A comprehensive view to climate, development and conflict can provide a more robust justification of the UK’s engagement in FCACs.


The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published earlier this year sets out ‘Global Britain’ and its vision of a values-driven foreign policy. The UK’s commitment towards a ‘force of good’ needs to be founded on deep understanding of these complex intersections across climate, development and conflict. Importantly, the Government needs to continually ask ‘force of good’ for whom through its engagement in FCACs.


Dr Naho Mirumachi is Reader (Associate Professor) in Environmental Politics at the Department of Geography, King’s College London, UK. She leads King’s Water, an interdisciplinary research hub on water, environment and development. Her research focuses on the politics and governance of water resources, particularly in developing country contexts. Her research extends to issues of water diplomacy, water security and socio-political barriers to water sustainability. With over 15 years of experience, she has published extensively and is the author of Transboundary Water Politics in the Developing World (Routledge 2015) and Water Conflicts: Analysis for Transformation (Oxford University Press 2020). Naho recently served as lead author on freshwater policy for the 2019 UN Environment GEO-6 report and currently working on the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.


Marine Hautsch holds an MSc degree in Environment and Development from the Department of Geography, King’s College London. She is currently a research assistant working with Dr Naho Mirumachi on a Swedish Research Council funded international project on ‘Conflict Prevention and Low-Carbon Development: Opportunities for promoting and sustaining peace through renewable energy projects’.


Image by Dean Calma/IAEA under (CC).


This work was supported by Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development Formas 2017–01941 Conflict Prevention and Low-Carbon Development: Opportunities for promoting and sustaining peace through renewable energy projects.


[1] Urban, F. 2010. The MDGs and beyond: Can low carbon development be pro-poor? IDS Bulletin, 41(1), 92–99; Mirumachi, N., Sawas, A. and Workman, M. 2020. ‘Unveiling the security concerns of low carbon development: climate security analysis of the undesirable and unintended effects of mitigation and adaptation’, Climate and Development, 12(2), pp. 97–109. doi: 10.1080/17565529.2019.1604310.

[2] Rittel H and Weber M, ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, Vol 4, No 2, June, 1973, pp 155-169.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Anderson, M. B. 2004. Experiences with Impact Assessment: Can we know what Good we do? In Transforming Ethnopolitical Conflict (pp. 193-206). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden.

[5] HM Government, Conflict, Stability and Security Fund: Annual Report 2019/20, January 2021,

[6] Adano W.R., Dietz T., Witsenburg K., and Zaal F. 201.) “Climate change, violent conflict and local institutions in Kenya’s drylands”, Journal of Peace Research, vol 49 (1): 65-80; Sen, A. 2009. The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

[7] John Vidal, EU diplomats reveal devastating impact of Ethiopia dam project on remote tribes, The Guardian, September 2015,

[8] Abbink, J. 2012. ‘Dam controversies: contested governance and developmental discourse on the Ethiopian Omo River dam’, Social Anthropology, 20(2), pp. 125–144. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8676.2012.00196.x; Hodbod, J. et al. 2019. ‘Social-ecological change in the Omo-Turkana basin: A synthesis of current developments’, Ambio, 48(10), pp. 1099–1115. doi: 10.1007/s13280-018-1139-3.

[9] Hodbod, J. et al. 2019

[10] Human Rights Watch, “What Will Happen if Hunger Comes?” Abuses against the Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, June 2012,,the%20Gibe%20III%20hydropower%20project

[11] Carr, C. 2012. Humanitarian catastrophe and regional armed conflict brewing in the transborder region of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan: The proposed Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia. Berkeley, CA: Africa Resources Working Group (ARWG).

[12] Leslie Johnson, Kenya Assessment – Ethiopia’s Gibe III Hydropower Project Trip Report (June – July 2010), Mursi Online, July 2010,; Mara Budgen, Gibe III dam disastrous for indigenous Ethiopians and Kenyans. “We can’t eat electricity”, Lifegate, October 2015,

[13] Abbink, J. 2012.

[14] Barnett, J. and O’Neill, S.J. 2013. Minimising the risk of maladaptation: a framework for analysis. In: Palutikof, J.P. et al. (Eds.) Climate Adaptation Futures, pp.87-94. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

[15] Magnan, A. K., Schipper, E. L. F., Burkett, M., Bharwani, S., Burton, I., Eriksen, S., and Ziervogel, G. 2016. Addressing the risk of maladaptation to climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 7(5), 646–665. doi:10.1002/wcc.409; 25

[16] Asare-Nuamah, P. et al. 2021. Farmers’ maladaptation: Eroding sustainable development, rebounding and shifting vulnerability in smallholder agriculture system. Environmental Development, 40, 100680; Mikulewicz, M. 2020. Disintegrating labour relations and depoliticised adaptation to climate change in rural São Tomé and Príncipe. Area.

[17] Lomax, J., Osborne, M., Aminga, V., Mirumachi, N., and Johnson, O. 2021. Casual pathways in the political economy of climate adaptation: winners and losers in Turkana, Kenya solar mini-grid projects. Energy Research & Social Science, 8.

[18] O’Brien, K. L. and Leichenko, R. M. 2003. Winners and losers in the context of global change. Annals of the association of American geographers, 93(1), 89-103

[19] Ibid.

[20] Abbink, J. 2012.

[21] David Whitehouse, Kenya’s Lake Turkana points the way forward for African wind power, The Africa Report, July 2019,

[22] Dr. Edward Mungai, British Companies Emerge Biggest Investors In Kenya’s Wind Farms, Africa Sustainability Matters, February 2020,

[23] Louise Voller, Vestas’ wind farm in Kenya is the country’s largest green investment ever. Now a court has declared it illegal, Danwatch, November 2021,; Cormack, Z., & Kurewa, A. 2018. The changing value of land in Northern Kenya: the case of Lake Turkana Wind Power. Critical African Studies, 10(1), 89-107; Achiba, G. A. 2019. Navigating contested winds: Development visions and anti-politics of wind energy in Northern Kenya. Land, 8(1), 7

[24] Kazimierczuk, A.H. 2020. Tracing inclusivity: Contribution of the Dutch private sector to inclusive development in Kenya. Case study of Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd., the flower sector and Lake Turkana Wind Power project, Thesis (PhD) Leiden University.

[25] Hartmann, B. 2010. Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of policy discourse. Journal of International Development, 22(2), 233–246. doi:10.1002/jid.1676; 18

[26] Mirumachi et al. 2020.

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