Conflict, Climate, and the Congo

By Leonie Malin

Degraded forest in the area of Yangambi, DRC. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR via Flickr.

While newsrooms continue to be consumed by the chaos caused by the uncontrollable spread of the coronavirus, other relevant (and more lethal) issues are being swept under the rug. Countries with a history of civil conflicts and a future of high vulnerability to climate change are being sidelined in current conversations, even though they often experience the highest risk to the spread of epidemics. After over a year of battling an Ebola virus outbreak which has killed 2,200 people, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has now been identified among 13 countries most at risk of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Most people in the DRC still do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, exposing them to increased risks of waterborne and emerging infectious diseases. As a result, the status of human security in the DRC is precarious.

Human security, which refers to the extent of economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security experienced by an individual, has never been a straightforward or simple topic in the DRC. Economic deprivation, armed conflict, and institutional failures have been destabilizing the DRC ever since the 15th century when outsiders initiated a violent and long-lasting trend of exploiting the Congo for the trillions of dollars worth of resources hidden within its landscapes. The historical context of European colonization and extreme exploitation serves to illuminate why the country confronts so many interlinked issues today.

Although the DRC is extremely rich in resources such as energy, minerals, gemstones, and timber, it only ranks 168 out of 169 on the UNDP’s Human Development Index and 70% of the country’s economy is informal and dominated by rural sectors. The level of development in no way reflects the level of natural wealth present in the region. The root cause of the low levels of development and human security in the country can be traced to violent conflicts that have been rampant in the region for decades. Large values have attracted a variety of powerful interests as market demand for Congolese minerals has increased. In this vicious cycle, war facilitates the excessive exploitation of resources and this has reinstigated further conflict.

Aside from generating an enormous death toll, the country’s past and present conflicts have resulted in immense environmental damage and degradation. The conditions of environmental damage and threats to human safety are mutually reinforcing and have been difficult to address effectively, as political instability, poverty and inequality has remained pervasive. With some successes, the UNDP is implementing several projects to support development in the DRC, such as one titled “Building Capacity in DRC to Threats Posed by Climate Change on Food Production and Security,” which aims to address the increased variability in agro-climatic conditions and subsequent impacts on the agricultural sector. The Congo Basin is the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world and provides food, shelter, and livelihoods for over 80 million people, making it a highly environmentally valuable region. The DRC’s share of the region’s tropical rainforest also stores 8 % of global forest carbon, making it a valuable area for carbon sequestration.

Unfortunately, the region is threatened by the prospect of increased temperatures and variable rainfall as a result of climate change. These changes are projected to negatively affect livelihoods and ecosystem services which are already in danger as a result of land-use change and deforestation. Although determining the vulnerability of different sectors to climate change is challenging, there is a great urgency for action to address access to safe drinking water, the displacement of people due to environmental change, reduced agricultural yields, potential damage to infrastructure, and the increased prevalence of water- and vector-borne diseases. The urgency of institutional change and quality health infrastructure has been increasingly evident in the past few years, but the actually political ability to act remains limited. The human-environment dilemma facing the DRC is an enormous one, often sidelined or forgotten in the midst more high-profile news stories and immediately shocking trends than the slow violence that institutional failure and climate change can provide.

Conversations about human health and security must be multi-sectoral and include environmental consciousness on every level in order to successfully promote the individual and institutional responses necessary. In the case of the DRC, local armed groups that continue to wreak havoc in many regions hamper the progress of development, threaten human security, deepen instability, and complicate responses to diseases. If the threat of violence cannot be contained, then the prospects for peace and human security in the Congo will remain gloomy. Each element of human security is interconnected and requires a holistic approach to support its development in vulnerable countries. As civilians of countries like the DRC continue to suffer the consequences of a violent and greedy mineral trade, extensive environmental degradation, armed group attacks, and vulnerability to epidemics and climate change, wealthier nations are failing to make the supportive financing commitments needed to help communities on the front lines of crisis. While the urgency to address humanitarian and climate crises rises, the concrete actions taken by powerful states and corporations continue to disappoint and newsrooms continue to be swept up in stories distracting from the more fundamentally life-threatening issues confronting humanity today.

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