8 Aug 2023

Sudan: protecting civilians and alleviating the consequences of both conflict and climate change go hand in hand

On 11 May 2023, the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces – the two parties to the current conflict in Sudan – signed an agreement recognizing their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law. In this agreement, known as the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan (Jeddah Declaration), they outlined the rules they stated would guide their conduct to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance, essential services, healthcare and proper burial.

These legal obligations exist regardless of the signing of the Jeddah Declaration. However, public recognition of these obligations offers an opportunity to demonstrate how international humanitarian law – and the specific provisions that were highlighted in the Jeddah Declaration – can not only support respect for civilians and the delivery of essential services, but also address the dual consequences of climate change and conflict. By respecting international humanitarian law, the parties to the conflict can facilitate anticipatory action in advance of potential climate shocks and disasters to minimize the impacts of such events, even in the midst of an already complex humanitarian context.

Climate risks in Sudan

Sudan is ranked 177 out of 192 countries in terms of vulnerability to climate change, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative. The main climate risks are extreme temperatures, precipitation and sea level rise in the Red Sea. In the Sahelian regions, drought and water scarcity present significant and increasing challenges, particularly in Kordofan, Darfur and central Sudan. There is also a high risk of floods for communities around the Nile River Basin.

The capacity to adapt to climate change in Sudan is highly limited. There is also evidence that people affected by armed conflict are typically more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as they have fewer resources available to anticipate, respond and adapt. With compounding risks arising from the conflict, responding and adapting to climate risks is a very real and present challenge for civilians in Sudan.

International humanitarian law, anticipatory action and the Jeddah Declaration

The Jeddah Declaration can be broken down into four general categories around: (1) humanitarian access; (2) protecting the medical mission; (3) protecting civilians on the move; and (4) reducing civilian harm. Through the lens of anticipatory action, we can see how respect for these rules of international humanitarian law can also help to reduce the impacts of climate risks.

1. Humanitarian access

The Jeddah Declaration highlights key provisions under international humanitarian law on the importance of protecting and facilitating humanitarian assistance and access in Sudan. Humanitarian access is essential not only to facilitate much-needed and life-saving assistance for people affected by the conflict, but also to support and act in instances of climate disasters or shocks.

Humanitarian organizations are integral to reducing the impacts of extreme climate events through anticipatory action, for example by distributing provisions, implementing protective measures and supporting evacuations. This is particularly true where humanitarian organizations are the primary responders in conflict contexts, as in Sudan. If the parties to the conflict facilitate and protect humanitarian organizations, these organizations can continue to operate in the event of floods, drought or other extreme events, reducing the impacts of these on a conflict-affected population.

2. Protecting the medical mission

The Jeddah Declaration reflects the protection of health facilities and healthcare workers, as mandated under international humanitarian law. It includes commitments to respect and protect hospitals, medical transport and medical personnel. This is important, as the combination of armed conflict and climate change creates compounding pressures on healthcare in the face of multiple risks. Armed conflict typically increases demands for emergency medical care and decreases the capacities of health facilities. At the same time, climate shocks place additional demands on healthcare, and climate change is increasingly exposing people to more severe hazards and extreme events.

In Sudan, extreme temperatures are a growing risk due to climate change, with Khartoum predicted to be one of the top five cities in Africa most exposed to deadly heat. This can pose a serious public health emergency. Ensuring the respect and protection of the medical mission reduces conflict-related pressures on healthcare systems (e.g., shortages of medicines and medical supplies). This would allow the Sudanese healthcare system to prepare for and respond to anticipated climate-related health impacts, such as those caused by extreme temperatures.

3. Protecting civilians on the move

The Jeddah Declaration outlines the parties’ obligations to protect civilians from the effects of the hostilities, with a specific focus on the safe movement of civilians. International humanitarian law requires that civilians are protected from the effects of hostilities, including while on the move. These rules also allow for individuals and communities to reach safety in case of climate-related disasters during armed conflict. For instance, if an early warning system has predicted flooding, this could trigger actions to move civilians out of flood-exposed areas.

In times of armed conflict, it becomes imperative that civilians are not exposed to more harm from hostilities when seeking safety from a climate-related disaster. In Sudan, there is a high risk of flooding, including in the areas surrounding the states of Khartoum, Al Jazirah and White Nile. In locations where there have been high levels of hostilities, there is a clear, overlapping risk of both conflict and flooding. Ensuring civilians are protected while on the move can support the implementation of anticipatory actions in advance of flooding, such as allowing communities to safely reach dry land.

4. Reducing civilian harm

The Jeddah Declaration highlights important obligations under international humanitarian law for minimizing exposure to climate risks through the protection of civilians and civilian objects. Provisions under this agreement include minimizing disproportionate incidental civilian harm, safeguarding objects indispensable to the survival of civilians (e.g., foodstuffs, agricultural areas, drinking water installations) and respecting and protecting civilian objects (e.g., civilian infrastructure, the natural environment, means of transportation).

The protection of civilian infrastructure is essential for alleviating the compound risks of climate and conflict. For instance, weather and climate forecasts provide the foundation for anticipatory action, by indicating the probability and predicted impacts of extreme events and triggering early actions in response. Meteorological infrastructure is fundamental to this process and protecting this type of civilian infrastructure can ensure that potential climate-related disasters and shocks can be predicted, even during a conflict. This in turn allows information to be shared and used by governments and communities to minimize harm ahead of extreme events.

A final thought…

As the impacts of climate change intensify, there is an urgent need to use all available tools to minimize its consequences. This is particularly true in places such as Sudan, where people are experiencing compounding crises, including armed conflict. International humanitarian law is one such tool, and respecting these rules reduces the impacts of armed conflict on civilians – and the compounding consequences of conflict and climate risks. By respecting the obligations highlighted in the Jeddah Declaration, the parties to the conflict in Sudan can help to minimize the consequences of both conflict and climate hazards.

This blog was written by Sarah Gale, with contributions from Catalina Jaime and Evan Easton-Calabria.

Khartoum, Mygoma orphanage. The ICRC evacuates 300 children from a risk area to the city of Wad Madani. © Ali Ahmed Ali Ahmed / ICRC.