South Sudan is highly susceptible to both protracted conflicts and the impacts of climate change. Before 2011, the country experienced a long and deadly civil war. Disputes continued after independence, with violence often spilling over across borders and into nearby countries. Local impacts of climate change (e.g., droughts, flooding) disrupt economic growth and community livelihoods, potentially contributing to conflict and destabilising the region. Climate adaptation and food security can therefore have important implications for reducing violence, particularly social conflicts that involve local ethnic militias, civil defence forces, and vigilantes.

To test these implications, I collected monthly information on climate adaptation and food security projects implemented by nongovernmental organisations in South Sudan and its bordering countries between January 2012 and December 2022. Such measures include, among others, planting more resilient crops, building dams and granaries, managing environmental resources such as grazing land or water reservoirs, and training locals in more effective sustainable food production.

Unfortunately, I did not find that these types of adaptation projects have any impact on social conflict or civil war. In fact, at least in South Sudan, there was the risk that they might be associated with more conflict. A project manager I interviewed provided one explanation: “South Sudan is a complex crisis country …[while] flooding and drought have led to displacements, people move into new geographies, and conflict scenarios shift.” In these complex situations, adaptation can exacerbate these dynamics, especially if the root cause is political or socioeconomic; or, as another local policy ethnographer explained, “you cannot just ask for a local solution and detach national politics from the local issues.”

However, I did find one interesting exception. Adaptation interventions that emphasised general preparedness – including, for example, efforts to plant more resilient crops, train locals in more effective sustainable food production, and create sharing tools for renewable resources like water – were associated with lower rates of social conflict, both within South Sudan and across the border.

Why might adaptation that emphasises general preparedness help in alleviating violence? One explanation builds on the nature of social conflict actors. Social conflict actors are more prevalent than military, police, or rebel groups in the region because they thrive in contexts of weakened or decentralised government. Because these actors are more dependent on locally-sourced crops and cattle, they may also be more sensitive to the effect of weather shocks upon these resources. Adaptation strategies that emphasise general preparedness can address – albeit imperfectly – a wider range of unexpected weather shocks, reducing the need for violent competition over scarce resources.

Another explanation emphasises the disruptions the civil war caused to local livelihoods. As one policy researcher explained, by emphasising specialised adaptation, “programming tends to incentivize specific livelihood strategies…which do not respond to local livelihood trajectories.” This can increase uncertainty about the future, considering climate change’s effects are hard to predict. In contrast, adaptation strategies that emphasise building general resilience can provide local communities with more flexibility, allowing them to choose whether to maintain traditional livelihoods or, if needed, adapt to new ones.

Regardless of which explanation is correct, the finding that adaptation programs that emphasise general preparedness may help reduce conflict illustrates how important it is to consider a broad set of direct and indirect outcomes when trying to tailor climate adaptations to conflict contexts.

Nevertheless, it can be hard to convince donors who fund adaptation that this approach makes sense. Donors have their own expectations when choosing which project to fund, which leads to “top-down” pressures that often do not conform well to the local realities, where social conflict poses a constant hardship. The problem is that, “[m]ost donors don’t understand the complexities…it’s really difficult to be able on the one hand to put a proposal that supports donor demand but on the other hand, is really context driven,” as one policy practitioner explained.

At the same time, it is imperative to convince donors that considering a wider range of outcomes will improve the chances of success. Understanding how interventions designed to support climate adaptation and promote food security can be tailored to local conditions in conflict settings is crucial. By investing in projects that have a better chance not only of improving adaptation in the immediate terms, but also of reducing the risk of violence, we can improve long term resilience, thereby preventing conflict from disrupting livelihoods and harming adaptation efforts.