Michael Vatikiotis, an HD senior advisor and former Asia director, looks at why mediation is a vital survival strategy for humanity as climate change intensifies conflicts and displaces millions of people.

Perhaps our biggest mediation challenge today is the threat of disruptive displacement and deadly conflict across vast areas of the world made inhospitable by climate change. More than 2 billion people do not have sufficient drinking water, the United Nations reported recently. That’s just the start.  

Across Asia and Africa, rising temperatures, chronic drought and more frequent climate-related disasters are forcing millions of people to move from areas that are increasingly uninhabitable to areas where the future is more viable.

More migration is inevitable. In Asia, that means an eventual movement of people from the rice-growing areas of Southeast Asia northwards to the Himalayas and the Chinese uplands of Yunnan and the Tibetan plateau.

Across the middle of Africa, that means more herders moving onto pastoral land further to the tropical south – which already generates violent conflicts with farmers.

The time frame is 30 years. Within the span of a generation, parts of the dry zones of Southeast Asia and the northern arid lands of Sub-Saharan Africa will face average daily temperatures above 45 degrees for up to a third of the year.

Imagine 100 days of temperatures that you cannot physically tolerate outdoors. That’s already happening in India, by the way, causing at least a 5 percent drop in crop yields in wheat-growing areas of Punjab and Haryana at a time when the world urgently needs alternative sources of grain because of the war in Ukraine.

How does mediation help?

First, on a transnational level, it will be important to negotiate a range of agreements to monitor, manage and support growing numbers of climate refugees. 

This is beyond international agencies that are underfunded and face political obstacles to operating in many countries because of political sanction or existing violent conflict. Forcibly displaced people in large numbers will become the problem of regions with complex or conflicted interstate dynamics.  

Some of the affected countries barely even recognise or respect international conventions on refugees.

Soon displaced people will be the top of their agenda. New mechanisms and agreements will have to be negotiated between states that mistrust one another or are on the edge of conflict, such as the drought-stricken countries in the Horn of Africa.

Second, at the national level, there will be the need for mediation between communities and their governments on issues of water supply, fodder for pasture and eventually basic shelter.  

Initiatives like the National Livestock Transition Plan to address endemic farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria anticipate the need for climate-smart agriculture to preserve fodder for grazing animals as temperatures rise.

The worry is that a toxic brew of land disputes and criminality will interfere with efforts to encourage farmers and herders to protect and share increasingly precarious agrarian space.

Finally, at the community level, at least in Africa, we are already seeing violent conflict generated by competition for scarce natural resources. 

Tribes and clans who once shared resources are now fighting over dwindling fish ponds that supply important protein or receding pasture lands where herds of goats and cattle graze.

Mediation has already helped defuse some of these conflicts. But to sustain agreements, more training for local conflict management is needed.

Eventually, local teams of mediators will need to be mobilised to resolve and manage the disruption and displacement at the community level. This will be beyond the capacity of the state and must be a locally initiated effort supported by training and exposure to mediation experience and expertise.  

Governments have yet to really take on board the kinetic impact of rising temperatures on human settlement. This will make the tally and repercussions of the forcibly displaced – now almost 100 million people – far bigger than the already are.

In Nigeria alone, an estimated 20 million people could be moving southward within the next 30 years. They will be joined by many millions from even more arid countries such as Niger and Chad.

Climate change will turbo-charge ethnic and religious divisions and spur violence as a reflexive response to displacement and migration.   

At the very heart of the problem lie areas that are often beyond the reach of international aid and government support. Facilitating access to areas controlled by non-state armed groups and proscribed movements is vital to making sure that all communities in need are reached. 

These areas cannot just be abandoned to chronic lawlessness as that will mean surrendering to advancing desertification and the loss of tree cover, rendering land useless and ultimately accelerating the rise in temperatures.  

Mediation to create access in hard-to-reach, ungoverned areas is already a proven tool for ensuring public health and other public goods such as vaccination.

These same mediation tools can be used to offer technical advice on preserving ground water, planting trees to provide critical cover for crops and learning new ways to safeguard pastureland.  

Negotiating access and building trust with community leaders means that nature-based solutions can be sown where they are most needed.

Governments need to understand the gravity of the environmental challenge and allow mediators to do their work.

Our survival in the face of climate change will not be assured by neat boundaries and regulations but by the agility of mediators to negotiate ways to address needs and manage the movement of people in search of viable places.     

Worst case scenarios envisage climate change precipitating the collapse of civilisations, testing our capacity to preserve organised society. Mediation is not just about resolving disputes but increasingly a survival strategy for the human species.

This article is based on a speech by Michael Vatikiotis at The Aranda Mediation Conference 2022.

Photo: Community dialogue in Chad as part of HD’s conflict mediation work in the Sahel. © HD