Drought Africa
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Drought sets powders on fire

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Economic researchers have found a systematic link between periods of drought and the outbreak of riots in sub-Saharan Africa.
 
Ahe scientific community has been hypothesizing for several years that there is a link between periods of drought and the outbreak of riots. In order to formally verify this hypothesis, the University of Geneva (UNIGE), in collaboration with the Universities of Heidelberg (Germany) and Lucerne, has studied 1800 riots that occurred over a period of twenty years in sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers were thus able to observe a systematic link between the sudden scarcity of water resources and the outbreak of conflicts, and to quantify the impact of geographical and social factors on this same link. Their results, which highlight the importance of the role of political institutions in the event of drought, can be read in the journal Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.
 
Several case studies report that drought phenomena lead to tensions among affected populations. For example, when a drought wave hits a region, there is evidence that agricultural production and income decline, food becomes scarce, food prices rise and cities are no longer adequately supplied, leading to the emergence of riots.
But is the link between drought and riots systematic? Until now, much of the data used in this research has been too aggregated to answer this question precisely. Indeed, researchers based their analyses on figures indicating the average amount of rainfall for each country over a year and on the emergence of conflicts in the same year per country. These data were too unrepresentative of people's real water needs and ill-suited to the study of riots, a typically local phenomenon that is shorter and more explosive than civil conflict. There was therefore a need to refine these statistics and to take a closer look at each conflict in terms of region, climate and inhabitants.
 

Drought indicator

A team of economists, including Jérémy Lucchetti, professor at the Faculty of Economics and Management (GSEM) of UNIGE, chose to study the case of sub-Saharan Africa. Characterised by an economic structure that is dependent on the presence of water, this region is ideal for demonstrating the systematic existence of this link. 43 countries with a population of at least one million were analysed.
 
Researchers used a drought indicator developed by hydrologists, the SPEI (Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index), which measures the amount of precipitation in a given month over a region and subtracts the amount of water that evaporates. This index is available at a very fine scale: in increments of 50km by 50km, it indicates month by month the availability of water over a period of about 100 years. The economists then cross-referenced the SPEI information with data from the SCAD (Social Conflict Analysis Database), which records 1,800 elements of riots that occurred between 1990 and 2011, accurately geo-located (location, onset and duration of conflict) in sub-Saharan Africa. "The difficulty was to go beyond the simple drought-conflict correlation by studying other factors that could be linked to these two elements and make people believe, wrongly, that there was a link between drought and conflict.explains Jeremy Lucchetti. "For example, rebel groups moving away from the capital to a desert area can cause riots that are not directly related to the drought in the region, which can feed a spurious correlation.he illustrates.
 
Care should also be taken not to consider drought as the main cause of riots. "As a matter of priority, it is political, economic and social causes that create tensions. Drought is an element that ignites the powder keg."adds Jeremy Lucchetti.
 

Droughts increase the risk of rioting from 10% to 50%

Controlling for a very wide range of related variables, the researchers found that a period of drought globally increases by 10% the possibility of observing a riot in a given month in any region, whether desert or not, close to cities or not. "But if we cross-check other geographical and social factors, that percentage increases drastically."says Jeremy Lucchetti.
Indeed, three elements play a major role in the risk of drought-related riots. The first is population density: the more densely populated an area is, the greater the need for water. If there is a shortage of blue gold in the most densely populated areas of a country, the probability of seeing a riot increases by 50%. Similarly, if an area with no lakes or rivers is affected by drought, the risk of a conflict breaking out is doubled, whereas areas with lakes and rivers have a correspondingly lower risk of conflict. Finally, when several ethnic groups share the same water resource within the same region, traditional institutional arrangements may temporarily collapse in the event of scarcity, doubling the risk of conflict.
 
This study demonstrates the systematic and immediate link between drought and riots. Indeed, the economists found that drought-related conflicts erupt in the same month as the onset of water shortages, showing the responsiveness of populations to this problem, which affects agriculture, the economy and health. "Now we need to use this data to look in detail at what mechanisms political institutions could put in place to avoid riots, such as establishing redistributive mechanisms to drought-affected areas.concludes Jérémy Lucchetti.
 
Source: UNIGE
 

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