The independent resource on global security

Abyei offers lessons for the region on climate-related security risks

Dinka Herdsman Near Abyei. Flickr/Enough Project
Dinka Herdsman Near Abyei. Flickr/Enough Project

Weather, weapons and wealth have all played roles in the long-running conflict between South Sudan and Sudan over the Abyei area. The conflict in Abyei—a disputed border region of farmland, desert and oil fields—has its origins in a long-running disagreement between two pastoralist groups, the local Ngok Dinka and Misseriyya Arab seasonal migrants (see figure 1). This conflict was instrumentalized and exacerbated by territorial competition between South Sudan and Sudan, who stand to gain from local oil reserves. In June 2011, the United Nations Security Council sent peacekeepers to calm growing violence, as inter-communal attacks intensified, and the Sudanese government launched a full-scale assault that displaced over 100 000 civilians, just weeks before South Sudan officially gained independence. Today, the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) is one of the largest UN peacekeeping forces in the world, deployed in one of the most climate-exposed regions.

Map of Abyei Area. Wikimedia/Nicolay Sidorov
Figure 1. Map of Abyei 

Source: Nicolay Sidorov, ‘Map of Abyei Area’, Wikimedia Commons, 15 July 2011.

Surprisingly little has been said of climate change effects in Abyei, where a local conflict about shrinking land and water resources escalated to the highest levels of decision-making on peace and security. Abyei offers valuable lessons for peacekeeping operations on the importance of recognizing and responding to climate-related security risks. Although UNISFA’s mandate to protect local civilians and provide physical security often translates to Ngok Dinka and Misseriyya community dialogue on shared resources, its references to the effects of climate change on conflict in Abyei are noticeably absent. The absence of explicit recognition and responses to climate security in Abyei could impair future peacekeeping efforts and the resolution of the Sudan–South Sudan border dispute, which remains inherently tied to the status and livelihoods of the Ngok Dinka and Misseriyya.

Abyei’s climate exposure

Abyei is highly exposed to the effects of climate change: hotter weather is creating drier conditions and impacting water availability; seasonal rainfall is becoming erratic, increasing the frequency and severity of droughts and floods. The region’s exposure to the physical effects of climate change is accentuated by local socio-economic factors, including a high reliance on natural resources, limited alternative livelihoods to farming and herding, the political marginalization of local communities, and the outcomes of violent conflict—all of which limit local people’s capacity to adapt to the changing climatic conditions.

Climate factors complicate the security situation in Abyei and undermine efforts to build lasting peace between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriyya. SIPRI’s research on climate-related security risks in East and West Africa and in South and South East Asia has highlighted four ‘pathways’ through which climate change can interact with existing political and socioeconomic conditions to affect peace and security: livelihoods, migration and mobility, armed group tactics, and elite exploitation. These can all shed light on what is happening in Abyei and point the way towards tailored responses that could help bring peace where previous efforts have failed.

Livelihoods under threat

Groups whose livelihoods depend on the weather are the first to feel the effects of climate change. But how much they are impacted depends on the coping capacity and resources they can call on. In active conflict zones, or marginalized regions, people are often faced with a stark choice if they cannot find alternative livelihood and income sources: to migrate or to defend what they still have with increasing force.

In the 1970s severe drought affected the Misseriyya’s livestock herds, and thus their livelihoods. This led to more frequent violent clashes with the local Ngok Dinka in Abyei, as both groups sought to protect their access to pastures and water resources. Today, local livelihoods remain tied to these resources, and the same violent tensions persist. UNISFA regularly finds itself facilitating dialogues between the two communities on the use of shared water and pasture, and settling grievances about livestock theft. This highlights how central livestock, and their health, are to fulfilling the mission’s mandate.

Migration and mobility

Climate change can affect migration patterns in different ways. Extreme events made more frequent and intense by climate change, such as flooding, can force people to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Longer-term climatic changes that affect livelihoods and liveability in a locality can lead to temporary, seasonal, or even longer-term migration. The arrival of migrants in a host community can cause tensions due to a perceived scarcity of resources, strained ethnic relations or a lack of joint dispute resolution mechanisms.

Misseriyya migrant pastoralists have traditionally coped with rainfall variations and extreme temperatures by seasonally moving their livestock between areas of pasture, including in Abyei. Since the 1970s, expanding large-scale agriculture, oil exploration, drought and other climate change impacts, and violent civil war, have continuously eroded the Misseriyya’s seasonal migration options. These changes have gradually forced this pastoralist group into more concentrated and dry grazing lands that are less able to support their livestock and contribute to violent resource competitions with the host Ngok Dinka community in Abyei.

Seasonal livestock migrations remain a key conflict risk in Abyei, and UNISFA regularly mediates Ngok Dinka–Misseriyya tensions with the support of the UN International Organization for Migration and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. However, for the mission to build sustainable and peaceful seasonal migration in Abyei, there is a need to factor in how the current and projected effects of climate change on the region’s natural resources, livelihoods and migration patterns will affect local livestock migration agreements. This will support more durable local peace agreements and contribute to broader peacebuilding in Abyei.

Tactics of military and other armed groups

Decades of civil war in Sudan undermined relations between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriyya has led to tensions and deadly violence. The two groups were often recruited into opposing militias in the 1980s, partly lured by claims that they stood to lose access to pasturelands in the demarcation of borders between Sudan and a future independent South Sudan. The militarization of the Ngok Dinka and Misseriyya resource conflicts, and the greater availability of modern weapons from organized armed forces in Sudan and South Sudan, has escalated the local resource conflict in Abyei and gave it international significance.

Today, armed violence in Abyei continues to hamper Ngok Dinka–Misseriyya relations, pastoral livelihoods, and the natural resources needed to support them. Community militias are still perpetrating violence, including through armed attacks on villages, with significant civilian casualties, and UNISFA personnel. Despite local peace talks and a recent rapprochement between Sudan and South Sudan, the security situation remains tense, with implications for local livelihoods that are already strained by the impacts of climate change on resource availability and seasonal migration patterns.

Political and economic exploitation by elites

The effects of climate change on local disputes can often be manipulated or exploited by elites with relative wealth or power to advance their own interests—especially in active conflicts and during disasters.

In Abyei, Ngok Dinka–Misseriyya disputes over land and water have been exacerbated by elite exploitation. Sudanese and South Sudanese elites have sought control of the region’s oil wealth; both countries rely heavily on oil export revenues, and both have an interest in securing access to Abyei’s oil fields. For example, in May 2011, Sudanese militia and the SAF displaced 110 000 Ngok Dinka from Abyei to make way for oil exploration and expanded large-scale farms into pastures used by the Misseriyya.

Abyei also holds symbolic value in the process of South Sudanese independence, and strategic value in ongoing border demarcation negotiations. Sudanese and South Sudanese territorial claims to Abyei are partly tied to the Ngok Dinka and Misseriyya communities there. Participation of the Misseriyya in a local referendum on Abyei’s status remains a sticking point in talks between South Sudan and Sudan; South Sudan sees them as non-residents and consults the Ngok Dinka only, but Sudan wants the Misseriyya to take part. The risk of elite exploitation in Abyei remains high, with knock-on effects on the incidence of violent local conflicts, local resilience to the impacts of climate change and institutions, including traditional dispute resolution mechanisms used in Ngok Dinka–Misseriyya resource conflicts.

Lessons from Abyei

Throughout the 10-year deployment of UNISFA, climate change has undermined efforts to provide human security. Owing to the region’s climate exposure, and the projected increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, this trend will continue. Despite this, climate change is scarcely mentioned in UN Security Council resolutions that renew UNISFA’s mandate or in the mission’s own communications. This suggests that the impact of climate change on regional security dynamics are not being properly considered by UNISFA.

The case of Abyei offers three important lessons for UNISFA, as well as for other peacekeeping missions and actors in the region.

First, do not leave climate change out of conflict analysis; it can underlie or accentuate numerous social, economic and political issues and undermine UN peace operations such as UNISFA if not properly integrated into everyday work.

Second, while climate change is a global challenge, its human impacts are highly context specific. UNISFA’s security analyses in Abyei should therefore be couched in the local dynamics and how climate change impacts the security outcomes on the ground.

Finally, local resource conflicts affected by climate change will have broader implications for peace and security if they are not resolved. Understanding the links between the local and the regional in Abyei is key to developing climate-sensitive conflict responses and peacebuilding.


Kheira Tarif is a Researcher in the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.
Emilie Broek was a Research Assistant in the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.
Katongo Seyuba is a Research Assistant in the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.