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Blog Action Day | The year without summer: conflict and climate change

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Africa, Humanitarian

Crossing the street the other morning to get through the front door of DFID’s London Headquarters, I was suddenly confronted with a new bunch of faces. Normally I do my hour and a half commute just concentrating on getting some work done or enjoying music on my iPod, but on this day eight Greenpeace activists in white T-shirts were handing out leaflets on climate change. It made me think immediately of the humanitarian crisis in East Africa, where I‘ve focused my attention since getting back to my job as Head of the Africa Conflict and Humanitarian Unit, after my six months in Rwanda.

The situation is bad. Over twenty million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in need of humanitarian assistance, much of it food aid, over the next few months. And it could get even worse early next year, depending on how the current harvest pans out. That’s why Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development, last week announced last week a further £39 million of humanitarian support for countries in the Horn.

Mohammed shows his failed crops

This time last year I visited the Somali region of Ethiopia when it was already getting bad for the farmers. I met Mohammed from near Jigiga who knelt down in his field and showed me the state of his crops. This was meant to be a sorghum field, but it was just dust; the only thing growing was a toxic weed, dangerous for both humans and cattle. His first sorghum sowing had withered away when the rains had failed. Looking over his bare fields, he was expecting a gloomy harvest for himself and fellow villagers. The rains have been worse in 2009 over much of the region, and in Somalia the ongoing conflict has displaced millions.

What’s the reason for the food shortages; why are things so bad again for so many people? There are, of course, a host of reasons alongside the poor rains. Reaching those people most in need in the conflict areas is tough and dangerous; food prices, particularly in Kenya, have stayed high; governments and agencies have not been quick enough to act.  But one of the underlying causes for these problems is undoubtedly climate change.

Food security in Central and Eastern Africa (Credit: IPC) - click for bigger picture
Food security in the Horn of Africa (Credit: IPC / FEWS NET, Sept 2009) - click for bigger picture

Climate change prediction models are not yet accurate enough to say what will happen where with any great clarity, but we do expect the dry areas of East Africa to get drier. With this will come food and water shortages, population shifts and economic losses. Perhaps this is what we are already seeing. The security implications of these changes are complex and not well understood, because different societies cope differently with changes, but we do know that even if climate change may not be a direct cause of conflict, it does create conditions that make it more likely and more severe. The Stern Review emphasised that environmental degradation will lead to competition for natural resources, scarcity, migration and potentially destabilisation and conflict.

1816 was the year without summer. Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, blew its top and threw a massive amount of volcanic dust into the atmosphere in one the largest volcanic explosions of modern times. In his article ‘A brief history of climate change and conflict’ James Lee explains that ‘the volcanic dust travelled worldwide, blocking the sun’s rays and lowering temperatures.  The period of extreme cold, coupled with the eruption, produced a ‘year without summer’’. The season’s crops were lost and the cold forced people in Europe to migrate. But as the land across the continent was relatively densely settled, conflict came with the population movement. The result was social upheaval, riots and disease.

Back to Mohammed and the Greenpeace leafleters. The insecurity in much of the Horn of Africa and the stress that many people are suffering may not be a direct result of climate change, but the connections are too strong to ignore. The message in the Greenpeace leaflets about getting real results at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference will be vital for Mohammed and his fellow farmers.


This blog features as part of Blog Action Day and the Act on Copenhagen campaign

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  1. Comment by Canada Guy posted on

    Here’s my post for Blog Action Day:

    Everyone else go make one too!

  2. Comment by Blog Action Day: What does climate change mean to you? | MORE THAN Living posted on

    [...] some dreary. One that caught my attention was by DFID (now UKAid’s) Martin Leach about the plight of farmers in East Africa, and his worries for how climate change could worsen circumstances already shaped by war, famine [...]

  3. Comment by Simon posted on

    How come Eritrea is not on the list of ? How did it manage to cope ? Why is it not getting any help from DFID ?

  4. Comment by Martin Leach posted on


    You are right that I have not included in the blog post everything that DFID is doing in East Africa. We do have humanitarian programme worth about £3 million in Eritrea with UNICEF and Oxfam focusing on water and sanitation. Although travel in Eritrea is quite restricted, two colleagues from my team were able to visit in August, and one of them wrote an article that is currently on the DFID website at

    In addition we have provided support through the World Food Programme to emergency relief in the Karamoja District of Uganda.


  5. Comment by Youb Raj Basnet posted on

    Dear Martin,

    I am am satisfied with your blog 'the year without summer' and broad outline of Minister Alexander's announcement for humanitarian support to those countries.

    This week, I was looking through the 'Climate Change and Conflict Prevention' (Tanzler+Carius) article in Adelphi Research. We could not ignore the fact that it might have the connection in producing many Mohammads in the past. I however always do not favor the logical perspective in making connections in whatever lines, that includes climate change and conflict issue as well. As you have long experience in livelihood issues and conflict, I could see some glimpses its interrelation and possible measures. I am student of management now but have seen intense arm conflict in Nepal. We, of course know, various types of conflict and its initiations.

    Logically we can prove the correlations between increased sales of ice cream and sun glasses. Climate change may be or may not be the issue on the murder of people in the world. And also, first and second world war were not the issues either. The motivations theory of Marslow suggests the need and its importance in seeking higher satisfaction level. Some issues are related to 'survival' as Charles Darwin said. Though I am follower of Mohan Dash Karm Chand Gandhi who made it change even without violent activities. Conflict could bring the radical change, no doubt but the direction of conflict has never been proved to be without human sacrifice.

    I favour Mr. Douglas Alexander's support for humanitarian assistance, which is the most priority of the people of Africa. But it is also importance for the development leader like you to find out the scientific methods to grow overall and sustainable development with peace to turn 'failed green crop' of Mohammads in Africa. Otherwise, this will just be a philanthropy of UK government to developing countries, including a stunt of publicity to impress.

    Any blog with innovative idea will be a great source of inspiration for a student like me to understand the conflict and development in world. I am sure that you would experience "You Made a Difference" like the slogan of Astha Society of Canada. Please experience it from your SUPERVISION and MONITORING.

    With best wishes,

    Youb Raj Basnet, Middlesex University, Hendon, London
    (International Student from Nepal)