22 May 2023

Making Adaptation Work: Addressing the compounding impacts of climate change, environmental degradation and conflict in the Near and Middle East

For humanitarian actors, the compounding impacts of environmental degradation and climate change on all aspects of human security are starkly visible in the needs of the populations they serve. In the Near and Middle East, the consequences of armed conflict are exacerbating these impacts, with severe repercussions on health, safety and well-being. As climate change intensifies, its impacts will also intensify, which, in turn, will further exacerbate humanitarian needs. Given the challenges affecting the Near and Middle East and previous research findings concerning the humanitarian impacts of climate change, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Norwegian Red Cross (NorCross) carried out a desk review to further strengthen understanding of these interlinked phenomena and look at how mobility, be it internal or cross-border, plays in the living conditions and livelihoods of affected communities in the region. This policy brief presents key findings from the full report.

The report explores how the humanitarian consequences of environmental degradation and climate change are aggravated by armed conflict in the Near and Middle East, using examples from Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Its overarching goal is to enable humanitarian actors to better understand the main risks faced by communities in the region and better respond to their needs. Furthermore, the report aims to identify opportunities and barriers in strengthening community resilience to climate and environmental risks in areas affected by armed conflict or by the legacy of conflict.

The Near and Middle East is heavily affected by environmental degradation and climate change, with impacts including water stress, declining agricultural production and increasing public health challenges linked to high temperatures, increased air pollution and decreasing water quality and availability. Current and previous armed conflicts in the region have further exacerbated the situation and increased vulnerabilities, due to their impacts on three different levels:

Weakened governance systems, as authorities may lose capacity, resources and organizational knowledge, get cut off from international efforts, and be unable to include civil society and private-sector groups in the management of common resources because security is prioritized over other issues, or because of a lack of trust.

Damage to the environment and infrastructure as a direct consequence of the conflict or as a result of harmful coping mechanisms or mismanagement, which can undermine the livelihood sources and ecosystem services that underpin healthy societies.

Detrimental impact on human security due to the damage caused to health, livelihood systems and the infrastructure and ecosystems that support them. The combined impacts of armed conflict, climate change and environmental degradation cannot be averted through humanitarian action alone.

Humanitarian, development, environmental and peacebuilding actors need to work together to help lay the foundations for long-term sustainability and community resilience before, during and after a crisis. We call upon these actors to advocate for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and work together to strengthen in-country climate action for people affected by armed conflict by:

Making it easier for conflict-affected countries and communities to access financing for climate adaptation. There is a need to ensure that populations affected by the combined impact of conflict, climate change and environmental degradation receive the support they need. The findings in this report support experts’ call for policymakers in states, multilateral financial institutions and climate funds to approach risk differently, support action at multiple scales and with diverse actors, improve coordination across the international aid structure, and address silos that hinder action.

Investing in adaptation programmes that address needs across sectors, including by building health system resilience. Alongside adaptation in food and water systems, there is an acute need to invest in health system resilience in conflict-affected countries, so that they can respond to the combined impact of environmental degradation, climate and conflict on lives and health. Health systems should be better equipped to deal with the increased health burden, by enhancing their preparedness to respond to diseases with epidemic potential and the increased burdens of chronic disease (including mental health) and malnutrition. Taking a holistic approach to health that recognizes the intrinsic links between human, animal and environmental health will help countries to address these compounding impacts.

Providing humanitarian and adaptation support to displaced people and people at risk of displacement in conflict-affected countries. Displacement can be prevented by providing environmental management and climate adaptation support to vulnerable communities already bearing the consequences of armed conflict before they exhaust existing adaptation options or are exposed to extreme weather events; this will help to strengthen their resilience. Similarly, adaptation initiatives geared towards displaced people can help to prevent further displacement, especially for those living for protracted periods in camps or informal settlements originally built for short-term stays and thus particularly vulnerable to climate risks. At the same time, it is essential to recognize that both in-country and cross-border mobility can be an important adaptation, coping and even survival strategy for people facing the combined effects of climate change, environmental degradation and armed conflict. As such, mobility-related considerations should be integrated into adaptation support strategies and approaches, taking into account the priorities and concerns of those affected.

Supporting locally led adaptation, tailored to conflict-affected context. Including local communities as key agents in adaptation efforts enhances adaptive outcomes and reduces the risk of maladaptation. People and communities on the front lines of climate change – including displaced people – are often in the best position to identify the most pressing risks and issues and to contribute to finding solutions. The priorities for all organizations, including humanitarian organizations and donors, should be to enable devolved decision-making, to ensure direct access for legitimate community-led structures without reference to central governments,to address structural inequalities, and to invest in local capabilities and flexible programming. Accountability towards the people humanitarian organizations seek to assist is a critical component of humanitarian engagement within adaptation and resilience-building processes.

Collaborating across sectors to strengthen the adaptive capacity of people and communities and the evidence base concerning successful adaptation work in conflict-affected settings. Operational collaboration across the humanitariandevelopment-peacebuilding nexus can help to harness the complementary nature of these organizations’ mandates and expertise with a view to helping the most vulnerable communities adapt to a changing climate and environmental degradation. Humanitarian and peacebuilding actors can help to sharpen the conflict and risk analysis of development and climate actors in order to ‘de-risk’ and contextualize action in conflict settings, thereby supporting climate adaptation activities that meet the needs of conflict-affected communities. Investment in environmental and climate services, especially in remote areas and informal settlements, will enable anticipatory action and better responses, while empirical studies on successful and unsuccessful adaptation measures in conflict-affected areas are critical to ensure informed decision-making and programming. Drawing on traditional and historic knowledge of climate patterns when systematizing climate information will also be necessary in places where hostilities and resource constraints have rendered climate data infrastructure inoperable.


This report has originally been published by the Norwegian Red Cross and can be found here.

Photo credit: Flickr/IWMI Flickr Photos