ECC Platform Library


Sardar Sarovar Dam Conflict in India

Type of conflict main
Intensity 4
Southern Asia
Time 1985 ‐ ongoing
Countries India
Resources Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water
Conflict Summary The Sardar Sarovar Dam, constructed on the sacred Narmada River, aims to secure power, as well as irrigation and drinking water, for the drought-prone region...
Sardar Sarovar Dam Conflict in India
The Sardar Sarovar Dam, constructed on the sacred Narmada River, aims to secure power, as well as irrigation and drinking water, for the drought-prone region. However, the project has also had significant environmental impacts and has displaced large proportions of the population, especially poor farmers and ethnic and Adivasis, the aboriginal population of India. Indeed, this situation catalysed one of the major environmental protest movements in India.
Conceptual Model

Climate Change

The region around the Narmada River is prone to droughts. It has been argued that climate change could worsen the situation in the area.

Intermediary Mechanisms

The building of the dam brought extensive environmental and social consequences. Villages and productive land suffered from massive flooding, and downstream fishing and the natural habitat of wildlife were also negatively affected. Other ecological impacts of the project include waterlogging and salinization of water, silting of the river bed, and deforestation. Such environmental degradation damaged the livelihoods of populations relying on agriculture as a means of subsistence. Furthermore, small farmers and tribal groups were displaced from their lands without proper compensation.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

Civil discontent began to rise in 1985, and different national and international groups denounced several infringements of environmental and human rights standards. Political protest, mainly voiced by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, grew by peaceful means, and opposed the regional governments supporting the project, as well as the national government.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversMore frequent/intense extreme weather events lead to decreased water availability.Infrastructure development facilitates land use changes.Infrastructure development leads to environmental degradation.Water scarcity undermines water-dependent livelihoods.Changes in land use lead to migration/displacements.Pollution / Environmental degradation reduces available/usable natural resources.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources undermines resource-dependent livelihoods.Problems related to migration/displacements lead to growing discontent with the state.Livelihood insecurity leads to growing discontent with the state.An increase in the frequency and/or intensity of extreme weather events, such as floods or droughts.More Frequent / Intense Extreme Weather EventsAn increase in the scarcity of clean water and/or an increased variability in water supply.Increased Water ScarcityConstruction of major infrastructure, such as dams, canals or roads.Infrastructure DevelopmentA change in the usage of environmentally relevant land.Land Use ChangePollution and degradation of ecosystems, such as coral reefs.Pollution / Environmental DegradationA threat or destruction of livelihoods dependent on the availability of environmental resources / goods.Livelihood Insecurity(In)voluntary long and short-term movements of people within or across state boundaries.Displacements / MigrationGrowing scarcity of essential natural resources.Natural Resource ScarcityChallenge to the state's legitimacy, ranging from peaceful protest to violent attempts at overthrowing the government.Anti-State Grievances
Context Factors
  • Unresponsive Government
Conflict History

The Sardar Sarovar Dam is one of the biggest dams built within the framework of the Narmada River Development project which started in 1979 thanks to the award of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT – see Narmada Dam Water Dispute between Indian States). However, from 1985 onward, civil discontent began to rise, coming from citizens, academics, international and national NGOs and medias who denounced several infringements of environmental and human rights standards (Narula, 2008). Different groups of non-violent activists merged in 1989, giving birth to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which has been leading the protest since then and opposing the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, as well as the government of India, which were all supporters of the project.

A development project causes public outcry
From the outset, governments and dam builders advocated the development aspect of the project which aimed at providing power as well as irrigation and drinking water in a drought prone region (Ellison, 2005). Whilst the World Bank had agreed to support the project in 1985, political protest mainly voiced by the Narmada Bachao Andolan grew by peaceful means. This non-violent protest was inspired, among other, by the Gandhian ideology (Vinay Lal, 2000Kalland & Persoon, 1998).

The World Bank's withdrawal
This led the President of the Bank to form an independent commission in 1991, in order to reassess its position. The Independent Review, also called Morse Report, which followed firmly condemned the lack of a proper resettlement and rehabilitation plan (R&R) as well as the inadequate evaluation of the environmental damages involved (Morse Report 1992), while highlighting the lack of data and consultation with the people concerned. The World Bank consequently withdrew its support for the project.

Environmental impact
The building of the dam has entailed massive flooding of villages and productive land. This has brought about extensive environmental consequences, such as a negative effect on downstream fishing, threat on wildlife natural habitat, waterlogging and salinization of water, silting of the river bed, deforestation (Morse Report 1992Kothari & Ram, 1994). For populations whose livelihood entirely relies on agriculture, an ecological disaster, such as this, also has economic impacts by damaging their mean of subsistence. The net benefits of the dam itself are thus questioned. Further it has been argued that climate change could worsen the situation.

Social repercussions
The displacement of small farmers and tribal groups without a proper financial compensation, if any, has been at the heart of the conflict. The governments of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat are still responsible for massive violation of the right to life, livelihood and rehabilitation of thousands of families (Indian Independent People’s Tribunal, 2010). Although the public protest managed to publicize the conflict at an international stage in the 1990s, the Sardar Sarovar Dam has been built and several raises in its final height have been agreed to, expanding the scope of the submerged zone and thus worsening the environmental and social impact of the project.

Resolution Efforts

Although the nonviolent protest of the Narmada Bachao Andolan led to the withdrawal of the World Bank in 1993, neither the government of India nor the state governments stopped the project. The Narmada Bachao Andolan thus brought the case to the Supreme Court of India in 1995. The latter decided to suspend the construction of the dam because of the lack of prior assessment of the project’s environmental and social impacts.

Unaddressed grievances
The government of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat consequently established a Grievance Redressal Authority which aimed at dealing with the resettlement and rehabilitation complaints of those displaced. The Supreme Court’s next rulings (1999, 2000) permitted the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, thus leaving the grievances unaddressed. The lack of involvement of civil society and especially of those displaced in the decision-making process has been much criticized and may be responsible for the failure of the conflict resolution efforts. As the decision-making process still excludes the different social movements and citizens, the dam’s construction has not been held and thousands of families remain left without any compensation.

Governments disregard their obligations
There is yet rehabilitation and resettlement requirement laid down in the award given by the NWDT in 1979 as well as in the Supreme Court rulings. Those requirements foresaw that the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat would have to compensate those displaced, but the concerned government still do not comply with their obligations towards the displaced populations (Indian Independent People’s Tribunal, 2010).

No accountability to the international community
Besides, the World Bank’s withdrawal from the project somehow removed the international attention from the conflict, and certainly released India from its accountability duties towards the international community (Narula, 2008). Indeed, after the scandal following the Morse Report which constituted a “historical watershed for the World Bank" and an important landmark in the struggle for accountability (Sureda, 2003), the World Bank did not leave the project but set up conditions to its participation (Kirk, 2011). It withdrew at the request of the Government of India, which allowed the latter to avoid increasing its social and environmental standards.

Prestige dimension
An important factor of the conflict resolution’s failure is the political context in which the project was drafted and decided. Its rhetoric and legal framework date back to the direct aftermath of India’s independence, when an ambitious modernization agenda was established (Aquapedia, 2015). The Sardar Sarovar Dam is thus also about prestige and development, a theme explored in more detail in the Narmada Dam Water Dispute between Indian States.

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

Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Violent Conflict No
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement More than 100.000 or more than 10% of the country's population are displaced within the country.
Cross Border Mass Displacement Best estimate that more than 100.000 or more than 10% of country population are displaced across borders.
Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water
Resolution Success
Resolve of displacement problems Displacement continues to cause discontent and/or other problems.
Reduction in geographical scope The geographical scope of the conflict has decreased.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future There is no increased capacity to address grievances in the future.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been mostly ignored.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity There has been no reduction in 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
Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Narmada Bachao Andolan
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
World Bank
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleExternal
Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat (Governments)
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal International
Indian Government
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Indian Supreme Court
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Entry Points for Resilience and Peace Building
3 Mediation & arbitration The Supreme Court of India decided to suspend the construction of the dam in 1995 because of the lack of a prior assessment of the project’s environmental and social impacts. After the involved regional governments established a Grievances Redressal Authority to deal with the resettlement and rehabilitation of those displaced, the Supreme Court permitted the construction of the dam. However, the grievances of the displaced population were ultimately left unaddressed.
0 Social inclusion & empowerment The involvement of different social movements and citizens in the decision making process of the project is key for a satisfactory resolution of the conflict.
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 not present.
Ecological marginalization is not 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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