Idris from Kenya and Mohamed from Ethiopia reenact their embrace when they were reunited after years of conflict between their two communities. | Tine Frank/USAID

Adapting Development Programs in the Face of Climate Change and Conflict

By Christine Chumbler

Many of the world’s conflicts have control over natural resources at their core, whether that resource is water, agricultural land, or mineral wealth. Shifting weather patterns due to climate change can reduce water availability and make it difficult to successfully grow traditional crops in many areas. This leaves millions of people in rural and urban areas, who are already in precarious positions, feeling even more challenged and desperate.

USAID’s Findings and Preliminary Lessons from Uganda, Ethiopia, and Peru looked at three countries facing challenges from climate change. In all three countries, climate change is disrupting communities’ long-held understandings of their environments. Rural inhabitants comment frequently on the increasingly erratic nature and sheer unpredictability of weather events and weather patterns. Centuries-old coping mechanisms are breaking down as the intervals between severe droughts gets shorter. As communities’ traditional knowledge becomes less useful in the face of climate change, they feel a loss of power over their own destiny.

According to USAID research, 81 percent of “fragile” countries are predicted to experience significant climate change impacts that exacerbate situations where political, economic and social stresses already exist. This includes countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In addition, climate change could destabilize countries in South America and Southeast Asia that are not currently considered fragile. With this in mind, conflict mitigation programs must take into account possible impacts of climate change, just as climate-resilient development programs must grapple with conflict sensitivities.

Populations in the three case study countries, for example, feel pressure from state-led economic development plans. In Uganda and Ethiopia, pastoralist groups are wary of government support for large-scale commercial agriculture, which will push them away from their traditional lifestyles and further from their coping mechanisms. In Peru, Andean farmers feel threatened by what they perceive as preferential water access policies for mining interests.

Therefore it is important for climate-resilient development programs to be implemented strategically and to be mindful of local context, so that they can contribute to conflict mitigation and prevention as well as sustainable development.

USAID’s Climate-Resilient Development (CRD) Framework examines how the effects of climate change may influence other development goals. The framework outlines that climate-resilient development interventions should link project design to problem diagnosis, and identify a development goal in terms of its economic, political, social and cultural context. Then, inputs and enabling conditions necessary to achieve that goal should be identified. Next, both non-climate and climate stressors should be identified. Finally, vulnerabilities to climate stressors must be assessed, engaging decision makers and stakeholders throughout.

Engaging all stakeholders helps integrate conflict sensitivity into a program and reduce the risk of unintended outcomes. Being “conflict sensitive” means all program activities are designed and periodically reviewed in light of changing conflict dynamics to ensure that 1) they do not inadvertently create or worsen conflict, 2) they factor in the possible impact of existing or potential conflict on staff, implementing partners, and the activities themselves, and 3) they seek appropriate opportunities to reduce tensions and consolidate peace and reconciliation.


When chiefs and women come together for peace across borders.

One of the CRD framework annexes provides questions, developed by International Alert, to consider when planning climate- and conflict-related activities. Questions include:

  • Will extreme or variable weather conditions undermine your particular strategy or action? How will this affect the social, economic and political resilience of poor communities?
  • How significant have past struggles over climate-dependent resources such as water and land been in the region?
  • Will changes in the natural environment contribute to social, economic, and political instability? Which societal groups are particularly vulnerable?
  • Will your action affect resource competition between different users of the same resource (water, land, forests, etc.)? Will this competition become more pronounced in the face of climate change?
  • Which development pathways are likely to contribute to vulnerability to social unrest (social disparities, weak state structures, corruption, ethnic differences, separatist movements, food insecurity)? Which mechanisms can be strengthened to promote resilient and stable communities?
  • Which cooperative strategies and institutional frameworks on a national or regional level are appropriate to promote resilience to climate, resource-related and political insecurity at the local and national level?

These questions can feed into a conflict assessment — a first step in designing a conflict-sensitive, climate-resilient program.

USAID’s Conflict Assessment Framework provides extensive guidance for conducting an in-depth formal assessment. A key objective for USAID programs is to understand and adapt to the activities of key actors, whether individuals or groups, in a way that builds consensus toward peaceful, democratic and inclusive processes for managing natural resource disputes. Examining the intersections between the conflict analysis and projected climate change effects will reveal the most effective points for program interventions.

In many cases, effective interventions center on building the resilience of a group or institution to withstand the shocks of extreme climate events. Floods and droughts can reveal existing social resilience and the strength of coping mechanisms and adaptations that continue to work well in the face of change, giving USAID development practitioners a practical foundation on which to promote development and peace. For groups without a strong degree of resilience, USAID programs seek to reduce vulnerability, often by supporting livelihood diversification.

Uganda, Ethiopia and Peru are all devoting or seeking resources to upgrade the ability of government institutions to collect information and understand the effects of climate change at subnational and local levels. The dissemination of timely and accurate weather information to farmers and pastoralists is spotty at best and becomes a source of grievance, while the general lack of national disaster preparedness and response capacity in the three case study countries has an even greater potential for generating instability and conflict. USAID climate change adaptation programs address crucial natural resource use and livelihood issues. The examples of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Peru show that to be successful, they must also be participatory. By engaging marginalized communities, these programs address the perceived lack of participation and representation that is one of the main sources of instability as well as providing the tools to adapt to climate change.

Additional Resources:

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Conflict and Governance, Resilience
Africa, Asia, Global, Latin America & Caribbean

Christine Chumbler

Christine Chumbler is a communications professional with more than 20 years experience in writing, editing, and publications design. She has expertise in every stage of publication production, from concept and writing to editing, design, and printing. In the mid-1990s, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. This experience led to a career using her writing and editorial skills with international development and foreign policy organizations, many of which worked to directly support USAID’s efforts. She has worked in a freelance capacity full-time since May 2016. Chumbler has a Master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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