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Climate change’s influence in rising tensions and conflicts: the Nile river crisis



The main purpose of this article is to review and understand the research that has been made in relation to climate change and violence, more precisely the increase in the form of violence known as communal violence, this, studied from a broad political science perspective. Recent quantitative studies found a link between weather anomalies and an increase of some forms of violence. It is true that some mechanisms do not seem to have deep consistency, nonetheless, it’s important to note the improvements made during the last few years regarding climate change and its relation with the increase in the risk of violence. Therefore, deeper focus on the political consequences of adaptation and mitigation is needed. In this article, we will briefly explore the current conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia to see whether this conflict is aggravated by climate change effects and the possible outbreak of some kind of communal violence.


Climate change constitutes one of the greatest challenges that the world is facing nowadays. This global challenge has prompted a good amount of research about its impact on many fields. Nonetheless, in this article, we aim to focus on the impact that climate change has had in the production of violence, more specifically in the current increase of communal violence. In order to better understand the impact of climate change, this article exposes some theoretical frameworks and investigations that have already been formulated regarding the relation between climate change and the increase in violence and conflict: these researches are then employed to provide a more profound analysis of the current conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding the Nile river.

Theoretical Framework: What is being done?

Levy et al. (2017, p.245) defines violenceas “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation”. One of these types of violence, is collective violence, that is being defined as “the instrumental use of violence by people who identify themselves as members of a group...against another group or set of individuals, in order to achieve political, economic or social objectives”. The collective violence includes state-sponsored violence, armed conflict, and organized violent crime (6). In this line, there are many methodological studies that relate an increase of communal violence as another side effect of climate change. Kelley (5) concluded that the extreme severity of the drought in Syria was part of a long term drying trend consistent with models of increases in GHGs (human-induced climate change). They demonstrated that the drought contributed to political unrest in this country. Furthermore, Gleick (3) has accumulated many data about intrastate and interstate conflict over water resources, he concluded that these conflicts have been increasing to the point that there were 38 water-related conflicts throughout the world between 1960 and 1989. In this line, as Salehyan (7) has alleged, political violence occurs generally when basic needs of society are not met and when “the tactical environment is more conducive to attacks—conditions that hold when water is more abundant.” Last but not least, Hsiang & Burke (4) have done a meta-analysis of 50 quantitative research studies in relation of the association between climate variables and both violent conflict and sociopolitical instability and they found strong relation between climate irregularities and conflict and social instability. Precisely, they demonstrated when temperature and precipitation is extremely high or low, both conflict and sociopolitical instability increase. Hence, much research has found that climate change has influence on security and this is a general phenomena to all around the globe, arising from climate change effects that are both gradual and rapid, and influences various types of conflict that range all spatial scales.

The Nile river crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia: Is a climate change consequence?

Riparian countries are characterised by many transboundary water resources, a fact that sometimes can originate hydro-political challenges. This is the case of the current conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile river. For a better understanding of the subject, it’s worth to underline that most of the rivers in Ethiopia are transboundary, and no formal agreements have yet been made in relation to transboundary water use and management between riparian countries. In fact, development of projects on shared rivers tends to lead to political discussions and sometimes it is challenging to have effortless development what it traduces in lack of discouragement for the financing institution to lend the money need to do so (1). This is in fact the case of the Nile river crisis. Ethiopia has problems with the scarcity of arable farmland and landlessness, which presents a serious problem for rural livelihood (10). In an attempt to solve the problem of having insignificant flow out of the drainage system in spite of their substantial amount of water resources (1), the Ethiopian government has designed and planned the construction of dams over the Nile river that would regulate the river's flow to produce hydropower and expand irrigated agriculture. So, as Berhanu et al. (2014) noted, water resources are key elements for the development of Ethiopia, they categorize the development of Ethiopia as “water-centered development” to highlight the importance of water for growth and transformation of the country, and for its survival. Water is a key resource to satisfy the energy demand of the upcoming industries and then the water supply and sanitation system for the satisfaction of the inhabitants. The construction of the Nile dam that is a unilateral decision that threatens the Egyptians, since the agricultural sector in Egypt is one of the major components of their economy, to the point that this sector accounts for over 55% of  employment in Upper Egypt, where the agriculture sector is based in small farms using traditional practices that do not meet international standards (9). Given the background on how important water resources are in these 2 countries, it is essential to tackle the connection and the source of conflict between them both, the Nile river. The Nile river goes through 11 countries, providing hundreds of millions of people with the majority of their water supply. For many, this is the only water source. Egypt, for example, gets about 85% of its water from the river and experts expect the country to face a nationwide freshwater shortage by 2025 (8). In this line, it needs to be mentioned that many researches (8) have suggested that “climate change will make the river’s flow 50% more variable, swinging from drought one year to flooding the next and making the dam more difficult to operate. A 15-year period research suggests that flows from the Nile into Egypt could drop by as much as 25%”, therefore, taking into account that Nile supplies the vast majority of water in Egypt, the Ethiopian dam has been so controversial and has increased tensions between these 2 countries. In fact, during 2013, the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was caught on camera proposing military strikes in response to the potential project (8). Therefore, as the research exposed in the methodology has proven, climate change is becoming a factor that creates and increases tensions and conflict between these two countries. Thus, the possibility of droughts due to global warming is becoming a risk multiplier, for it enhances the threat posed by happenings of collective violence rooted in already-existing causative factors.

Furthermore, the role of climate change in causing or contributing to collective violence is greatest in places that are already at high risk of collective violence. So, as highlighted by Levy et al. (2017, p.251) “within low-income countries, climate change often exacerbates socioeconomic disparities, making the poor poorer and those who are vulnerable more vulnerable. This effect is best illustrated in low-income countries where many people support themselves and their families with subsistence agriculture”, that is well exemplified in the growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, that both according to the World Bank (11), are low and lower-middle income countries in which agriculture plays a key role in their economies, climate change is primed to increase tensions over Nile water. In fact the Dartmouth researchers write that by 2030, the flow of the Nile river will frequently fail to meet demand, and between 20-40% of the population will face water scarcity even during “normal years”.


The paper has shown that climate change may also become a cause of conflict since, the responses to it, including bioenergy (understood as the competition of the producers for land and food-related resources), or geoengineering (through disagreements between states) among others, can be breeding ground for conflicts. Therefore, as Brzoska et al. (2012) stated in their research, there is a growing need for:

conflict-sensitive mitigation and adaptation strategies that contain conflict and contribute to cooperation via effective institutional frameworks, conflict management, and governance mechanisms”.

In general, droughts that derive from global warming, lead to water shortages that put in danger the survival of the society in many warm countries such as Ethiopia and Egypt, hence, they increase conflict. Therefore, climate change is one of the multiple factors that have influenced the outbreak and development of conflict and growing tensions.


(1)Berhanu, B., Seleshi, Y., Assefa, M., & Melesse. (2014). Surface water and groundwater resources of Ethiopia: Potentials and challenges of water resources development. In A. Melesse, W. Abtew, & S. Setegn (Eds.), Nile river basin. Springer (pp. 97-117). [Crossref], [Google Scholar]

(2)Brzoska, M., Link, J., Link, P., Scheffran, J. (2012). Climate Change and Violent Conflict. Science 336(6083):869-71. DOI:

(3)Gleick PH. (2009). Water conflict chronology. In The World’s Water, 2008–2009: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources, ed. PH Gleick, MJ Cohen, pp. 151–96. Washington, DC: Island Press

(4)Hsiang SM., Burke M. (2014). Climate, conflict, and social stability: What does the evidence say? Clim. Change 123:39–55

(5)Kelley CP, Mohtadi S, Cane MA, Seager R, Kushnir Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implication of the recent Syrian drought. PNAS 112:3241–46

(6) Levy, B. S., Sidel, V. W., & Patz, J. A. (2017). Climate Change and Collective Violence. Annual Review of Public Health, 38(1), 241–257. DOI:

(7)Salehyan I, Hendrix CS. 2012. Climate shocks and political violence. Presented at Annu. Conv. Int. Stud. Assoc., April 1, San Diego, CA

(8)Schlanger, Z. (2019, September 17). 250 million people rely on the Nile for water that may not exist by 2080. Quartz. Retrieved from:

(9)USAID. (2021, August 11). Agriculture and food security. Retrieved from:

(10) Wendimu, G. Y. (2021, 13 may). The challenges and prospects of Ethiopian agriculture. Taylor & Francis, 7(1). DOI:

(11)World Bank. (2021). Lower middle income. Retrieved from

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