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Why United Nations peace operations cannot ignore climate change

Devastating flooding in Akobo, South Sudan, a country where a United Nations Peacekeeping Operation is present. Flickr/UNMISS.
Devastating flooding in Akobo, South Sudan, a country where a United Nations Peacekeeping Operation is present. Flickr/UNMISS.

On 23 February the United Nations (UN) Security Council will hold an open session on the topic of climate change and security. The security implications of climate change are highly diverse, crossing and linking different sectors of society. They have a particular relevance for the peace operations conducted by the UN (see box 1 and figure 1 below). As of December 2020:

  • 10 out of 21 ongoing UN peace operations were located in countries ranked as most exposed to climate change (see box 1).
  • 6 of the 10 biggest UN peace operations (by total international personnel) were in countries ranked most exposed to climate change. 
  • Of a total of 92 159 personnel deployed to UN peace operations, 80 per cent (74 396 personnel) were deployed in such countries.

Recent research in highly exposed countries shows that climate change’s impacts on host communities can have serious implications for both UN peacekeeping operations and special political missions. For example:

  • Both slow-onset climate-related impacts such as reduced rainfall, droughts and desertification of farmland, as well as rapid-onset hazards such flooding, can set back work to increase food and resource security as part of the peacebuilding process. Lack of economic opportunities linked to these impacts can hold back disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts.
  • Such impacts can also lead to population displacement and migration. This can put added pressure on resources at the destination. It can also undo careful work to engage population groups and negotiate power- and resource-sharing arrangements.
  • The absence of basic services and adequate mechanisms to respond to climate impacts can also contribute to the further weakening of governments in affected regions, and undermine their popular legitimacy. This creates governance vacuums that local armed and criminal groups can exploit.
  • Flooding, sandstorms and other climate-related hazards can reduce peacekeeping troops’ mobility, as well as their combat performance. 

The UN Security Council cannot ignore climate change and its impacts on UN peace operations. Not only do operations need to better inform the Security Council about the climate-related security risks they face, but the Security Council needs urgently to identify what additional measures, authorities or partnerships are required in order to properly plan for and address climate-related security risks in mission contexts.


A case in point: Climate change and peace operations in Somalia

During three decades of conflict, Somalia has experienced an increase in the frequency of climate-related problems, including severe droughts. The country’s overwhelmingly poor nomadic herders have been particularly hard hit, as their traditional grazing routes have become unviable. The results have included population displacement and conflicts with farmers. Internal displacement has made local people more vulnerable to insurgent groups such as al-Shabab.

Climate-related issues have increased the pressure on an already overburdened and under-equipped governance and judicial system. They have moreover directly inhibited the work of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM). UNSOM has responded with promising initiatives such as the development of a Recovery and Resilience Framework, the establishment of Drought Operations Coordination Centres, and the appointment of an environmental security adviser. 

How United Nations peace operations can adapt

UNSOM is, however, among only a handful of UN peace operations, even in the most exposed countries, to reflect climate-related risks in their mandates and operational plans. UN peace operations need to become more climate sensitive.

The UN Security Council resolution extending UNSOM’s mandate in 2018 included a call to report on climate-related security risks. It should become common practice among peace operations to regularly assess what climate-related risks exist in their area of deployment and how those could impact the fulfilment of their mandate. Operations and other agencies in the field should share their knowledge about those risks and their experiences in managing them, in order to accelerate learning.

The UN Security Council should also institutionalize the position of environmental security adviser in peace operations highly exposed to climate change impacts. This adviser can enhance coordination with the local government and helped to integrate responses within the UN system, across the humanitarian–development–peace nexus. They can also help to mainstream climate security into the work of the UN system at the community level. 

On the more positive side, responding to local climate impacts can also create opportunities for peacebuilding. For example, it can reduce pressure on freshwater resources or land that are creating intercommunal tension. In some cases, the response itself can be a forum for negotiation or cooperation between conflict parties. 

Interviews with peace operations personnel suggest that they often have little awareness of how climate change is impacting their host communities and the work of their operation. They should be sensitized to climate change to encourage them to take it into account in their problem solving and everyday work. 


Box 1. Definitions and rankings  

‘United Nations peace operations’ here refers to operations under the UN Department of Peace Operations and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs that are included in the SIPRI Multilateral Peace Operations Database.

The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) scores and ranks countries according to their vulnerability to climate change. The analysis here uses only the ‘exposure’ component of the ND-GAIN country index, which reflects the degree to which a system is projected to be exposed to significant climate change from a biophysical perspective, over the coming decades.


Notes for figure 1: BINUH = United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti; MINURSO = UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara; MINUSMA = UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali; MONUSCO = UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; UNAMI = UN Assistance Mission for Iraq; UNMHA = UN Mission to support the Hudaydah Agreement; UNMIK = UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo; UNMISS = UN Mission in South Sudan; UNMOGIP = UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan; UNSMIL = UN Support Mission in Libya; UNSOM = UN Assistance Mission in Somalia; UNTSO = UN Truce Supervision Organization; and UNVMC = UN Verification Mission in Colombia.

UNAMID is a joint African Union and United Nations operation. UNMOGIP operates in India and Pakistan. UNTSO operates in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian Territories.

ND-Gain exposure ‘is the degree to which a system is exposed to significant climate change from a biophysical perspective. It is a component of vulnerability independent of socioeconomic context. Exposure indicators are projected impacts for the coming decades and are therefore invariant overtime in ND-GAIN.’ Based on a country’s ranking in ND-Gain Exposure, countries were grouped into four categories relative to all 192 countries: ‘Most exposed’ = Country ranking >144; ‘More exposed’ = Country ranking 97–144; ‘Less exposed’ = Country ranking 49–96; and ‘Least exposed’ = Country ranking.

Data for South Sudan, Sudan (Darfur) and Abyei is from Sudan’s dataset. Data for Kosovo is from Serbia’s dataset (Macedonia 0.315 [13] and Albania 0.408 [71]). Data for Palestinian Territories is from Israel’s dataset. Data for Western Sahara is from Morocco’s (0.338 [26]) and Mauritania’s (0.364 [42]) dataset.

Sources: Notre Dame Global Adaption Initiative, ‘ND-GAIN Country Index’ and SIPRI Multilateral Peace Operations Database


Dr Florian Krampe is the Director of the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.