I haven’t seen much rain since May, when I started writing this blog. But the end of the baseball season, a bleak time for me every year except this one, has given the skies above Northern and Central California permission to open up, prompting me to think about the rains in Tanzania. They require thinking about because, as far as I know, scant research exists on the impact of contemporary climate change on human societies. During an era when we can expect ongoing drastic climate change, we need a lot of this kind of research, as suggested by Alex de Waal’s work on Darfur over the last quarter of a century.
In the mid-nineteen-eighties de Waal, then a graduate student in social anthropology at Oxford, traveled through Darfur to study reactions to the drought afflicting the region. De Waal met a bedridden and nearly blind sheikh who said times had changed for nomadic herders like himself. For as long as the sheikh could remember, his people had lived on mostly decent terms with Darfur’s settled farmers, even though the nomads would casually use racist epithets to refer to the farmers while the farmers described the nomads as savages and pagans. The rupture between nomadic and sedentary styles of living explained the racism and religious mistrust: Darfur’s herders as well as its farmers were both black and Muslim, overwhelmingly and perhaps unanimously.
Throughout nearly all of the sheikh’s long life, however, leading families from the nomadic and farming communities intermarried, and it was not unknown for a nomad to become a farmer or vice versa. Farmers welcomed the nomads as they passed through and grazed their camels. The farmers shared their wells with the herders while the herders fed their camels on the farmers’ unharvested leavings. The camels would fertilize the fields and often carry the farmers’ crops to market.
But the sheikh told de Waal it rained less now. Sand constantly blew into fertile land and the occasional rain washed away alluvial soil. The same farmers who had once gladly hosted the herders now blocked their movements because the land could no longer support everybody. Many herders, having lost their animals, struggled to farm on barely-fertile land. The sheikh lamented the destruction of the God-given order and said he feared for his children.
The blind sheikh was Hilal Abdalla, father of Musa Hilal. Beginning in 2003, Musa Hilal became the most infamous leader of the camel- and horse-mounted Janjaweed fighters terrorizing Darfur’s farmers: raping women, burning houses, torturing and killing men of fighting age.
Three years ago the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, confirmed the late Hilal Abdalla’s impression of decreasing rainfall. The Secretary General cited UN statistics showing Darfur’s rainfall had dropped forty percent in the previous two decades as rising Indian Ocean temperatures disrupted monsoons.
The point is not that one can’t blame Musa Hilal for the horrors he has inflicted. Failing to hold men like Musa Hilal accountable for their crimes only encourages more violence. The point is rather to consider how we might anticipate and prevent—and not just punish after the fact—future violence. Under pressure of starvation or deepening poverty, some of us will do terrible things, so relieving such pressure will keep some terrible crimes from happening.
In this context, those of us interested in the welfare of Tanzanians will want to pay close attention to the study released just over a year ago by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). The study claimed a rise in East African temperatures of between two and four degrees Celsius by the end of the century could reduce Tanzania’s gross domestic product by one percent by 2030—even as the country’s population continues to grow—and by up to two-thirds by 2085. “If Tanzania’s farmers and farming practices do not adapt, the impacts of climate change will be extreme,” warns IIED economist Muyeye Chambwera, who helped write the study, while his co-author James MacGregor, also an IIED economist, observes that the “impacts of climate change on agriculture will hit the poorest Tanzanians first and hardest.”—Don Stoll