Decades of drought helped trigger Darfur's violence as rival groups fought over scarce water and arable land. Now, experts fear the war and its refugee crisis are making the environment even worse, leaving the land increasingly uninhabitable and intensifying tensions with no end to the drought in sight.

Darfur's tragedy could be repeated in much of North Africa and the Middle East, experts fear, because growing populations are straining a very limited water supply. Data show rainfall steadily declining in the region, possibly because of weather changes linked to global warming.

"The consciousness of the world on the issue of climate change has to change fast," said Muawia Shaddad of the Sudan Environment Conservation Society. "Darfur is just an early warning."

Darfur's ethnic African farmers and tribes of mostly Arab nomads had long been competing for the region's meager water and land resources, experts say. But the severe droughts of the 1980s and meager rainfall since then sharpened the conflict between the two populations. When African tribes took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated government in 2003, the Arabs in Darfur were willing allies of the government because they already were competing with the farmers for water. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a Washington Post editorial earlier this month that the world must learn from the Darfur conflict, including the effects that global warming have on hopes for peace.

Darfur is usually discussed "in a convenient military and political shorthand — an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers," Ban wrote. "Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic."

"In Darfur, we really saw it coming," Shaddad said, pointing to a chart measuring annual rainfall in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur. The chart shows average annual rainfall has dropped by nearly half since figures were first collected in 1917.

In 2003, when the large-scale conflict began, 7.48 inches of rain fell on El Fasher. Meanwhile, Darfur's population has increased sixfold over the past four decades, to 6.5 million. That created a strain on resources beyond the capability of the tribes to manage. As the desert closed in, Arab nomads drifted farther south, bringing their herds of cattle toward lands that African villagers were farming. Those herds destroyed fields and worsened soil erosion. With land being made unfit for farming, the Africans rebelled when the central government in Khartoum seemed indifferent to their plight. On a recent morning in southern Darfur, camels grazed aimlessly on what used to be fertile fields. Village after village in the area lay destroyed and abandoned, with houses plundered and water pumps knocked down along the dirt track road winding across the arid landscape. Nomads have cut down many of the trees in the war zone. Trees are crucial to farmers, because they help stabilize the soil and provide shade for crops. Without them, it will be even harder for farmers now in refugee camps to return to their villages. In such a fragile environment, even steps designed to reduce human suffering are causing environmental problems.


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