UNITED NATIONS — Environmental degradation is a root cause of Sudan’s conflicts, says a June 22 UN report. Without addressing this issue, a lasting peace is unlikely, the report says.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in armed conflicts between the Sudanese government and several different groups. Militias operating in and around Darfur, the janjaweed, backed by the Khartoum government, are reported to have committed particularly vicious atrocities, including rape.

Despite a comprehensive peace agreement and decisions to deploy an African Union-UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, said UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner, “central to keeping that peace is the way in which the Sudan’s environment is rehabilitated and managed.”

The UN Environmental Program, which issued the report, said in a statement that “the most serious concerns are land degradation, desertification and the spread of deserts southwards by an average of 100 kilometers [62 miles] over the past four decades.”

Up to 12 percent of all Sudan’s forests have been lost within the past 15 years, the UN agency said. Certain areas might be completely barren within the next 10 years. Part of the reason for this is “long-term regional climate change in several parts of the country.”

Evidence for climate change includes a “marked” decline in rainfall — most clearly in the regions of Kordofan and Darfur.

In a telephone interview from Nairobi, Kenya, UN Environmental Program spokesperson Nick Nuttall told the World that thousands of people have been moving southward, fleeing the encroaching deserts.

“If you’ve got more and more people in a smaller and smaller area with scarcer and scarcer resources,” Nuttall said, “then it’s likely that that may lead to tensions between different groups, different interest groups, which can spill over into insecurity and conflict.”

Nuttall stressed that the problem is not solely based on climate change, but the environment is a root cause. “It’s not that we’re saying scarce resources automatically lead to conflict,” he said. “You need, obviously, other elements in this powder keg, but climate change and environmental degradation may be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Overgrazing and unsustainable agriculture have added to the degradation. The problem compounds itself as farmers and herders try to eke out an existence.

The report notes that there are now 5 million internally displaced people within the Sudan, with environmental degradation being the main cause. Moreover, “the environment is being further undermined by the sheer scale of displaced people and refugees.”

The worst may be yet to come. The UN warns that other simmering conflicts, such as in the Nuba mountains in Southern Kordofan, could erupt into outright conflict. Indigenous Nuba have come into conflict with Shanbala people, who have migrated into the region while fleeing the desert.

Agriculture may be severely disrupted. By 2020, 5 percent to 20 percent of Sudanese harvests may fail. Water shortages and flooding, further deforestation and many other issues will, if not addressed, continue to roil the Sudan.

Sudan, said Steiner, “is a window to a wider world” underlining how issues can destabilize regions, “even entire nations.”

dmargolis @pww.org