ECC Platform Library


Land Scarcity and Urban Violence in South Africa 1990-1994

Type of conflict main
Intensity 4
Southern Africa
Time 1990 ‐ 1994
Countries South Africa
Resources Agricultural / Pastoral Land
Conflict Summary Rising population numbers and environmental degradation in rural South Africa accelerated rural-urban migration during the late 1980s. Increased competition...
Land Scarcity and Urban Violence in South Africa 1990-1994
Rising population numbers and environmental degradation in rural South Africa accelerated rural-urban migration during the late 1980s. Increased competition for residential land, resources and public services in black neighbourhoods, in turn, combined with the negligence and complicity of the late Apartheid regime to produce gang violence, criminality and political unrest, which culminated in the years preceding South Africa's first free elections in April 1994.
Conceptual Model

Intermediary Mechanisms

Black townships in cities such as Durban and Johannesburg already suffered from high population densities and a lack of basic services under the Apartheid regime. Thus, rural migrants arrived to an already fragile situation in which overpopulation, poverty and the lack of services and security enabled a warlord economy.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

Paramilitary groups in urban areas competing for power and the control of basic residential resources violently targeted rural migrants, often along ethnic lines. Urban violence was further exacerbated by rivalries between different African parties, with paramilitary groups taking sides for different candidates in the years preceding South Africa’s first free elections in 1994. Urban violence remains an important problem in South African cities today.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversIn-migration leads to demographic change.Demographic changes increase pressures on natural resources.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources undermines resource-dependent livelihoods.Livelihood insecurity reveals lacking capacity of the state to manage crises.The perceived inadequacy of state capacity leads to growing discontent with the state.Reduced capacity and/or legitimacy of the state augments the risk of crime, violence, and extremism.Livelihood insecurity fuels grievances between groups.Voluntary or involuntary movement of people from one area to another.Migration patternsChange in population density, age structure, or ethnic makeup.Demographic ChangeGrowing scarcity of essential natural resources.Natural Resource ScarcityA threat or destruction of livelihoods dependent on the availability of environmental resources / goods.Livelihood InsecurityReduced capacity of the state to fulfil basic functions deemed necessary by the population and/or reduced public support for state authorities.Reduced State Capacity and/or LegitimacyChallenge to the state's legitimacy, ranging from peaceful protest to violent attempts at overthrowing the government.Anti-State GrievancesThe uptake of activities, such as joining extremist groups or engaging in illicit and violent activities, which increase the overall fragility of a region.Crime / Violence / ExtremismNon-violent or violent tensions and conflicts between different societal groups.Grievances between Societal Groups
Context Factors
  • Unequal Land Distribution
  • Water-stressed Area
  • High Unemployment
  • Political Marginalization
  • Political Transition
  • Unresponsive Government
Conflict History

The last years of the Apartheid regime saw a dramatic surge in crime and violence in marginalised black urban areas, especially in the areas surrounding Durban and Johannesburg. During the run up to the general elections in 1994 gang violence in black neighbourhoods increasingly mixed with political violence between organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the conservative Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Minnaar (1994) estimates, that yearly death statistics from political unrests in the areas around Durban and Johannesburg rose from 1403 in 1989 to 4010 in 1993, while the number of yearly unrest-related injuries rose from 1425 to 4790 over the same period (Percival & Homer Dixon, 1998). The intensity of armed political violence in South Africa has generally decreased since 1994. Criminality and gang violence remain however an important problem in South African cities (UCDP, 2015; Bénit-Gbaffou et al. 2008).

The discriminatory laws of Apartheid played a major part in shaping the conditions for increased criminality and political violence in black urban areas at the end of the 1980s. For one part, they exposed rural black South Africans to important environmental and demographic pressures, thus pushing them into urban areas. For the other part, they denied black urban areas the necessary services, security and administrative capacities to cope with increasing numbers of rural migrants.

Environmental scarcity and rural-urban migration
Under Apartheid different African groups were assigned rural “homelands” on approximately 14% of the South African land base, leaving the remaining 86% to the white minority (Whyte, 1995). These areas were not only characterized by fragile soils, but also by a distinctive lack of capital, fertilizers and veterinary services, further straining agricultural production. High fertility rates in the homelands, partly due to black South African's restricted access to education, combined with forced displacements of black populations from white rural areas, and a series of pass and influx control laws restricting black South African's access to cities dramatically increased population densities in the homelands. This resulted in deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and loss of rural livelihoods, forcing many black South Africans to move to peri-urban areas, often into informal settlements. This dynamic was further accelerated when the pass laws were repealed in 1986 (Percival & Homer Dixon, 1998)

Crowded cities, inequalities and urban violence
In urban areas, the system of Apartheid had led to high population densities in black townships, leaving them with insufficient services such as electricity and running water, weak local authorities, as well as high unemployment rates. Hence, rural migrants arrived in an already fragile social context. As argued by Percival and Homer Dixon (1998), overpopulation, poverty and the lack of security and service provisions in black townships enabled a warlord economy, in which paramilitary groups were fighting for power through the control of basic residential resources, such as land, home allocations, services, business rights, etc. With increasing migration from rural areas in the late 1980s, competition between different paramilitary groups and violence against rural migrants escalated, often along ethnic lines. The Apartheid regime did little to stop this violence; it even supported certain armed groups in order to weaken political opposition among black communities (Abrahams, 2010; UCDP, 2015).    

In the years preceding South Africa's first free elections in 1994, urban violence was further exacerbated by rivalries between different African parties, with paramilitary groups taking sides for different candidates. Especially the Durban area became the scene of brutal fights between supporters of the ANC and the IFP, leaving thousands dead (Percival & Homer Dixon, 1998).


Resolution Efforts

Urban violence remains an important problem in South African cities, especially in the poorer parts of large cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban. State officials, planners and grassroots organisations blame insufficient service and security provision, unemployment and obvious inequalities between privileged and less privileged neighbourhoods for this situation and highlight the importance of coupling the daily fight against urban violence with more pervasive development intervention in the least privileged areas, hosting a predominantly black population (Jensen & Buur, 2007).

Privatized security and community policing
Efforts by regular police forces to prevent urban violence have been complemented by a series of private forms of security: As a remnant of the Apartheid era, private security companies continue operating in affluent or middle-class areas, sometimes in cooperation with the national police, while different forms of community justice and vigilantism still exist in the townships. Since 1995 Community Policing Forums (CPFs) have become additional drivers for different forms of community policing and privatized security. Set up by the national police these regular meetings of the police and residents are intended at rebuilding trust in the police after years of racial discriminations and violence (Bénit-Gbaffou et al., 2008).

Limited access to housing and clean water in informal settlements
On the other hand, access to housing and the right to clean water has been incorporated in the South African Bill of Rights in the post-Apartheid Constitution in 1996, which the government must gradually ensure within its capacities. Yet, municipalities charge for water and are allowed to restrict residents to a minimum amount per month in cases of non-payment, while important shortages of clean water and housing still exist in informal settlements (Bénit-Gbaffou & Oldfield, 2014).

Lacking capacities and the limits of community security initiatives
Despite notable progress, there are still important challenges to city development and security in South Africa. Public, private and community stakeholders still deplore the lack of capacity of regular police forces to deal with insecurity and violence. At the same time, the effectiveness of privatized forms of security is questioned: Vigilante groups have been linked to a number of terrorist-related activities, such as grenade attacks against alleged criminals and police stations (Abraham 2010). Community security initiatives, such as road closures, can be used as a pretext to ban poor populations from more affluent areas, thus recreating Apartheid like conditions, while the privatisation of security has accentuated inequalities in experiencing crime and violence between residents who can afford supplementary measures and those who cannot. Moreover, several regulations since the late 1990s have limited the power of residents within CPFs. Combined with a lack of follow-up on publicly expressed concerns this has contributed to "their relative failure to sustain a satisfying dialogue between public authorities and residents" (Bénit-Gbaffou et al. 2008). 

Although residents can in theory use their constitutional rights to oppose restrictions of services and evictions from informal settlements, NGOs and activists can become the victims of intimidations and attacks with presumed links to political officials and the metropolitan police (Bénit-Gbaffou & Oldfield, 2014).  


Intensities & Influences
conflict intensity scale
International / Geopolitical Intensity
Human Suffering

Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Manifest Crisis
12 125
Violent Conflict Yes
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement None
Cross Border Mass Displacement No
Agricultural / Pastoral Land
Resolution Success
Reduction in Violence Violence reduced significantly, but did not cede.
Reduction in geographical scope There has been no reduction in geographical scope.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future The capacity to address grievances in the future has increased.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been mostly addressed.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity Conflict resolution strategies have been clearly responsible for the decrease in conflict intensity.
General opencollapse
Country Data in Comparison
ConflictNoData Created with Sketch.
Fault Lines Defining Conflict Parties
Purely Environmental | Cultural   ♦   Occupational   ♦   Economic   ♦   Urban / Rural   ♦   National / International conflict   ♦   Sub-national political

Participation Conflict Party     Conflict Resolution Facilitator
Government of South Africa
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Private security companies
Functional GroupCommercial
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Community security forces
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Entry Points for Resilience and Peace Building
1 Strengthening the security sector Citizens have taken security in their own hands by hiring private security companies in affluent or middle-class areas, or relying on vigilante groups. However, the privatisation of security has accentuated inequalities between residents who can afford supplementary measures and those who cannot. Thus, an increase in the capacity of police forces is crucial to reducing insecurity and violence.
1 Social inclusion & empowerment Community Policing Forums (CPFs) were established in 1995 by the national police and is intended to rebuild trust in the police after years of racial discrimination and violence.
0 Improving infrastructure & services The daily fight against urban violence must be complemented with more pervasive development interventions such as an increased access to water, housing, and employment opportunities, particularly in least privileged areas.
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Character of the contested good Private good: Can be owned and is depleted from use.
Structure of decision-making power / interdependence Asymmetric: The power to affect the environmental resource is unequal.
Broad conflict characterization Resource Capture is present.
Ecological Marginalization is strongly present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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