For its second Ecological Threat Report, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) assessed 178 independent states and territories to find those most prone to ecological-threat-related conflict.
It looked at food risk, water risk, rapid population growth, temperature anomalies and natural disasters, and combined this data with national measures of socioeconomic resilience — such as well-functioning governments, strong business environments and acceptance of other people's rights among others — to produce the 2021 Ecological Threat Report.
Ecological threats will lead to widespread conflict and mass migration unless significant efforts are made to limit the damage, the global think-tank found.
The report had identified 30 hotspot countries facing high levels of ecological threats, that were also characterized by such things as high levels of corruption, weak institutions, poor business environments and poor distribution of resources. The three regions found to be most at risk of societal collapse are the Sahel-Horn of Africa belt, which stretches from Mauritania to Somalia, the Southern African belt, from Angola to Madagascar, and the Middle East and Central Asian belt, which runs from Syria to Pakistan.
And those countries, as well as being at risk of further conflict, are also likely to experience mass migration. More than 50 million people were forcibly displaced by conflict and violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa in 2020.
Executive Chairman Steve Killelea explained, "Ecological damage and conflict are intimately connected, and I mean intimately connected."
The research found that regions menaced by conflict and ecological damage — such as natural disasters, resource scarcity and temperature anomalies — fall into a sort of feedback loop, where each issue reinforces the other.
"Resources get degraded, you fight over them, conflict then weakens all the social infrastructure and systems, and it also destroys the resources further, which now creates more conflict," Killelea said. "You've then also got the different ethnic or religious groups and old animosities from past conflicts, so it's easy to fall back in along those lines again."
One region that is falling into this loop is the Sahel — at the southern frontier of the Sahara Desert — where systemic problems, such as civil unrest, weak institutions, corruption, high population growth and lack of adequate food and water, are feeding into each other.
The IEP research found that these issues increased the likelihood of conflict, and facilitated the rise of many Islamist insurgencies in the region. Islamic terrorist groups have leveraged local disputes over dwindling resources such as water and grazing land to further their cause and gain power, it found.
Serge Stroobants, the IEP's director for Europe & Middle East and North Africa, said, "Today about 1.26 billion people are living in those 30 countries, and therefore we say that they are at a high risk of both conflict and displacement caused by environmental damages."
Although many ecological threats, such as water and food scarcity, exist without climate change, they are inevitably exacerbated by it, potentially pushing countries into new or deeper conflict and pushing more people out of their homes. By 2050, climate change is expected to displace an additional 86 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
"Climate change is definitely an aggravator and an accelerator of the effects and the impact of those ecological threats in those very specific countries," Stroobants said.