WPS Global Early Warning Tool - June 2020 Quarterly Update
Global Early Warning Tool June 2020 Quarterly Forecast
This latest Quarterly Update flags potential hotspots in the Sahel, Southern Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. There are also longer-term outlook flags for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar.
Overview. In this June 2020 Quarterly Update, the Global Early Warning Tool is predicting emerging or ongoing conflict throughout much of the Sahel region of Africa for the period June 2020 – May 2021. The Sahel region – comprised of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria – has been historically prone to drought and violence among ethnic groups vying for scarce resources. But changes in climate (including increasing temperatures and more extreme, erratic, or shifting rainfall patterns), decisions about water allocation (including the building of dams and water diversions for irrigation), widespread land degradation, burgeoning regional populations, and increasing activity by a variety of armed groups – be they criminal networks, Islamist insurgents, or ethnic self-defense militias – have greatly destabilized already tenuous conditions.
Mali. In Mali, Fulani herdsmen, who number around 40 million across Sahel, have become an increasing target of anger and social stigma as many of them have been recruited by local al-Qaeda groups, who provide support to the Fulani as they fight over fertile land and water resources with Dogon farmers. Dogon farmers have created their own armed militias. Killings and reprisals by these two groups have escalated and created a cycle of violence over the past several years. Women are often unable to obtain water for their families owing to the dangers associated with trekking long distances for supplies. Mali is home to one of the United Nation’s largest peacekeeping forces, but this force is nevertheless struggling to protect civilians in the region.
Nigeria. The United Nations estimates that approximately 80% of the Sahel’s agricultural land is degraded. Land degradation is a huge contributor to regional conflict as farmers and herdsmen fight over the productive land that remains. This is especially true in Nigeria. For example, in Miango, a small village in the state of Plateau, men presumed to be Fulani herdsmen killed 21 local farmers in September 2019 in what appears to have been an effort to force farmers off their land. Historically, tribal leaders have settled conflicts over land and water use between farmers and herders, but as resources have grown increasingly scarce, these traditional dispute settlement mechanisms have faltered.
Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso has lost over one third of its productive land to climate change. In a country in which 80% of the inhabitants rely on agriculture, the rapid loss of fertile land has created an inter-tribal scramble for the productive land that remains. As a result of violent clashes between the government and various armed groups, people are also increasingly losing access to basic water services, resulting in an increasing delegitimization of the government and further destabilization of entire regions. The upcoming rainy season – traditionally a period of increased water risks and food insecurity – will add to this pressure.
Proliferation of extremist groups. Increases in poverty and inter-ethnic conflict make the Sahel ripe for the proliferation of extremist groups. Organizations such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram have managed to embed their messages in local communities and provided many of them with a sense of empowerment.
Increasing regional violence. Though conflicts involving local tribes and extremist groups have been ongoing in the region since 2012, the UN reports that violence across the Sahel has increased fivefold since 2016. Figure 1 shows increasing fatalities in Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso between 2016 and 2019.
Figure 1. Fatalities in Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso in 2016 and 2019. Source: ACLED.
Impacts of violence on children. The increase in violence is having a catastrophic effect on children, who are being maimed, abused, sexually assaulted, and recruited into extremist groups. Over 700,000 children across the region are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. As violence spreads, schools have closed, leaving 670,000 children without education. These children, left without a vision of alternative livelihood options, become more susceptible to buy into radical discourse. Girls are more likely to be kept at home even after conflict subsides.
In summary. The Sahel region is a tragic example of how increasing resource scarcity and violent extremism can come together to further undermine security in fragile states.
Overview. While the Sahel exemplifies a region already beset by cycles of violence driven in part by resource scarcity and climate change, parts of southern Africa may exemplify a region on the cusp of such violence. Parts of this region have been hit by some of the worst droughts and flooding events in recent history and are exhibiting signs of severe societal stress that may precede large-scale violent conflict.
Mozambique. Mozambique has been torn by two weather extremes. The northern and central parts of the country were ravaged by back-to-back cyclones in March and April 2019. Climate change is said to intensify the rainfall associated with such cyclones. And even before these two Category 4 cyclones hit, heavy rains in the lower Zambezi Basin flooded corn fields in Mozambique and decimated harvests. Meanwhile, in the central and southern parts of the country, drought and abnormally high temperatures have produced poor harvests three planting seasons in a row.
These drought and flood events, together with ongoing conflicts in the central and northern parts of Mozambique, and government efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 are creating significant food insecurity. USAID reports that 43 percent of children under 5 in Mozambique are stunted, 69 percent are anemic, and 74 percent are vitamin A deficient, “with negative impacts on growth, immunity and development.” In May 2020, FEWS NET reported that “drought, conflict, and COVID-19 [are driving] stressed (IPC Phase 2) and crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes.”
In central regions of Mozambique, including Sofala Province, government forces of the ruling Frelimo party continue battling opposition Renamo forces. In the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado, a local Islamic extremist group with possible ties to the Islamic State and East African extremist groups has been battling government forces and Russian mercenaries, killing local villagers and setting their homes on fire over the past several years. According to experts, poverty, economic grievances, and political powerlessness are fueling this violence. The WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts emerging and ongoing conflict in both these regions of Mozambique.
Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, Mozambique’s neighbor to the west, is currently facing “stressed” or “crisis” food insecurity conditions across most of its territory, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). A combination of “climate disaster” and “economic meltdown” has forced food insecurity upon half the country’s population – 7.7 million people – according to a World Food Programme spokesperson in early December 2019, who noted that only one of the past five growing seasons has seen normal rainfall. The government has now increased the estimate of food-insecure Zimbabweans to 8.5 million. The WPS Global Early Warning Tool is currently predicting emerging conflict in a region adjacent to Harare, the capital. One million people currently lack access to water in Harare, where two of four reservoirs are empty as a result of severe drought, which began in 2018. In many places, residents queue in all-day lines at water pumps and private water purveyors sell water at exorbitant prices.
Middle East and Central Asia
Iraq. We noted in December 2019 that a wave of violent protests over everything from poor public services to lack of job opportunities to widespread government corruption hit southern and central Iraq in 2018 and 2019, culminating in the resignation of the Iraqi prime minister in late 2019. Many protesters lacked access to clean water, with more than 120,000 people hospitalized after drinking polluted water in Basra in 2018. Poor water quality continues to plague Basra, making people sick and forcing people from their homes. The new government has to prove whether it will prioritize these and other water-related challenges – including transboundary tensions with neighboring states. The WPS Global Early Warning Tool is predicting emerging or ongoing conflict in this region of southern Iraq.
Iran. Iran has suffered through severe drought in recent years, which has had a devastating impact on its agricultural sector, upending lives and livelihoods. In some regions, farmers have had to leave their land and migrate to cities in search of income. These numbers are likely to further increase in the future. Drought has also heavily impacted its water-dependent petrochemical sector, halting many lucrative projects and cutting off opportunities for economic growth.
Increasing water scarcity throughout the country has led to growing tensions among water users, especially between farmers, who fear the loss of water for irrigation, and water-thirsty cities, whose populations are growing quickly. And the failure of Iran’s leaders to adequately address growing water demand and extreme weather events (including prolonged drought and last year’s massive floods) is further undermining government legitimacy and fueling protests against government throughout the country, most recently erupting in Isfahan over the rerouting of a river and the prioritization of large-scale water uses. The WPS Global Early Warning Tool is predicting conflicts to emerge or continue in western Iran, along the border with Iraq. The tool is also predicting a continuation and expansion of violent conflict in the Tehran region, where dissatisfaction with the government – including its water management practices – appears to continue.
Iran and Afghanistan. Relations between Iran and Afghanistan – where a significant share of Iran’s water resources originates – have deteriorated as Afghanistan’s Kamal Khan dam nears completion this year. This dam along the Helmand River – Afghanistan’s water lifeline – is expected to help irrigate hundreds of thousands of hectares of Afghan farmland and generate eight megawatts of electricity for Nimruz Province. But Afghan leaders increasingly fear Iranian interventions against the dam, which is intended to improve water security in western Afghanistan but at a likely detrimental cost to downstream Iran. These problems have been accompanied by a general deterioration in relations between the two countries over the past few weeks. There has been repeated violence in the border regions, in both the Helmand and the Harirud river basins. The WPS Global Early Warning Tool is predicting conflicts to emerge along Iran’s border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan. Water is also part of a complex set of conflict and migration drivers within Afghanistan itself. Severe drought over the past few years has aggravated the situation, and although the worst of this current drought seems to be over, longer-term effects such as food insecurity persist. An estimated 13.5 million Afghans remain “severely food insecure.” A third of the population has migrated or been displaced since 2012. Climate projections point to a hotter and more resource-scarce future for Afghanistan. The country, generally speaking, is ill-prepared for handling extreme weather events whose effects add fuel to the flames of ethnic, social, and political conflict. The WPS Global Early Warning Tool is predicting conflict to persist throughout most of Afghanistan, and new conflict to emerge in the northeastern, central, and southwestern parts of the country.
There are conflict-prone places where water-related tensions are rising. While there is no significant water-related violence yet, the potential for water-related tensions to boil over into violence seems high.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Continuous violence in Lake Kivu region. Conflict in the Lake Kivu region of eastern Congo began in 2004 and pitted the Congolese army – over time – against groups sympathetic to both Hutu and Tutsi groups across the border in Rwanda. The most recent violence in the region has involved a radical Islamist group with ties to groups in Uganda. Lake Kivu lies on the border between Congo and Rwanda. Goma is the capital of North Kivu Province. Bukavu is the capital of South Kivu Province. Goma has been called the most dangerous city in the world, perhaps owing to the continuous regional violence, perhaps because Lake Kivu has a chance of suffering a limnic eruption every 1000 years (if that were to happen, many of Goma’s 2 million people would likely perish), perhaps because it just finished battling a deadly bout with Ebola.
Tensions over access to water in the region. Access to water does not figure into regional violence, at least not yet. But citizens of Goma, despite sitting on the edge of a vast lake, do not have access to running water. Instead, they must walk miles to the lake to fetch water which is of questionable quality (dissolved methane at the bottom of the lake periodically belches up to the top). Or they try to harvest rainwater in their neighborhoods. Last year, the ACLED database notes, there were peaceful protests against water shortages in the city. Further south, in the city of Bukavu, there were violent demonstrations against water cut-offs lasting several months.
Water risk overview. According to the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, Myanmar does not generally face significant risks due to water scarcity (it does, however, face high risks due to poor water quality, low access to improved water and sanitation, and significant riverine and coastal flooding). Nor does Myanmar appear to face any significant water-related violence, at least not yet.
Tensions over possible dam construction. One significant source of water-related tension in Myanmar has to do with Chinese government pressure to build five large dams on Myanmar’s main rivers, including the Ayeyarwaddy and the Thanlwin. The first of these dams – the Myitsone dam in ethnic Kachin state – was initiated but then suspended by former President Thein Sein in 2011, who bowed to both local and national opposition to the dam in Myanmar. Opponents argued that “the dam would erode the lifeblood of the nation that sustains agriculture, fisheries, and livelihoods for millions.” While the Chinese government has kept up significant pressure on the Myanmar government to build the Myitsone dam, citizens have taken to the streets to peacefully protest its construction, including in April 2019, when, according to the ACLED database, 8,000 – 10,000 residents in Kachin state protested against the renewal of the dam project and urged authorities to halt it and other dams. It should be noted that Kachin rebels have been battling the Burmese army since 1962 for greater control over their region, which is rich in resources.
As a final observation, we note that the current coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic adds yet another threat multiplying factor to the explosive mix of conflict and instability drivers many individual countries and the world as a whole are facing. As a partnership, we have been reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 on our work, and more broadly on peace and security around the world. We commend you to read our recent coronavirus piece here.
ABOUT WPS AND ITS QUARTERLY UPDATES
Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership. The WPS Partnership offers a platform where actors from national governments of developing countries and the global development, diplomacy, defense, and disaster relief sectors can identify potential water-related conflict hotspots before violence erupts, begin to understand the local context, prioritize opportunities for water interventions, and undertake capacity development and dialogue activities.
The Global Early Warning Tool. Our Global Early Warning Tool provides the initial step in a multi-step process, employing machine-learning to predict conflict over the coming 12 months in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. So far it has captured 86% of future conflicts, successfully forecasting more than 9 in 10 “ongoing conflicts” and 6 in 10 “emerging conflicts”.
Quarterly Updates. We are publishing Quarterly Updates to accompany our updated maps. These Quarterly Updates flag some of the hotspot areas we are tracking and describe what journalists and other actors are seeing on the ground. While we are primarily concerned with water- and climate-related conflict, the tool is designed to forecast any type of violent conflict (and can therefore be used by a variety of users interested in conflict).
Our multistep process. Early warning is very important, especially given limits to the number of problems that national and international actors can track and address at one time. Our Global Early Warning Tool ensures that emerging conflicts can get the attention they need, early enough that potential risks can still be mitigated. Our regional- and local-level tools then support the next steps in the process and can be used to verify (or disprove) global model predictions, better understand regional and local conflict dynamics, and begin to identify opportunities for mitigating risk. WPS partners offer training and capacity development to global-, national-, and local-level actors to help them better manage risks. We can also help build constructive dialogues among parties to disputes (and other key stakeholders) that can engender water-related cooperation, peacebuilding, and design of conflict-sensitive interventions.
 Our machine learning model does not (yet) pick up relationships between administrative units, be they intra- or inter-national. So, while it may be tempting to say we are picking up the possibility of an international conflict, at this point we cannot say this.
 The trade-off for this high recall is low precision for emerging conflicts. Around 80% of all emerging conflict forecasts represent false positives, that is, instances where conflict was forecast but did not actually occur. Ongoing conflicts are much easier to accurately predict and have both high recall and high precision (<1% were false positives). We continue to work on improving the early warning model and expect that future versions will be able to better predict conflict.