Using conflict data to investigate climate change-related protests

Data on protests around the world show that climate change and environmental issues, such as water scarcity, are increasingly sending people out to take their grievances to the streets.

Data suggests more people protest over climate change-related issues, such as water scarcity (image: Dreamstime)

Protests grow more common that involve issues like the lack of essential resources such as water. With our climate warming, more frequent and more severe droughts and more extreme weather events on the rise, increasingly fewer people tolerate missteps by their local or federal leaders. More people take their anger and frustrations to the streets.

When in May last year, in the city of Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora, around 50 people gathered to protest, demanding improved water services, few officials bothered.

Perceived in isolation, these mostly peaceful demonstrations represent just single data points. Few barely generate enough attention to attract local news coverage. However, when these protests are collected thoroughly and analysed in bulk on their frequency, the picture suggests water and climate change-related protest events become more and more common.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, short ACLED, a non-governmental organization specializing in disaggregated conflict data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping, offers data on protests in many countries across the world [often using social media reports and local news coverage to find and confirm them]. ACLED’s data also records the exact location and summarises what each protest wanted to change. It allows doing additional analysis in niche areas such as climate change and water issues.

In Mexico, not all protests went unnoticed and some received considerable attention. When last November groups of farmers gathered and demonstrated in the civic centre to demand the closure of a brewery and a guarantee that they are provided with water for their crops in Mexicali, Baja California, protesters timed it right. Mexico’s President was just visiting. International Newspaper like the Guardian picked up the story.

Interactive version HERE

Five years earlier, similar frustrations befell concerned Mexicans when plans in 2016 were announced to build a plant by Brewery giant Modelo — among other brands, the producer of Corona. The business was accused of using so much water from wells that the region suffers major water shortages. Ramping up the water-heavy industry in Mexico like brewing and fracking increasingly left the public angry and dry-mouthed.

Not only in Mexico but across the rest of the planet, water and climate change-related protests seem to sprout.

ACLED’s doesn’t systematically code connections to climate change and environmental issues, a representative tells E&T via email. However, notes for each protest event allows keyword searches and to filter the data to terms like ‘water’ or ‘water shortage’.

Filtered protest data may serve as a harbinger that water problems, often linked to more extreme droughts, mismanagement by the government and climate change, indeed move up on citizens’ agendas as issues affecting locals become more irksome.

2021 presents a stark example of how bad the climate can get in Mexico. This year, the nation experienced one of its most widespread and intense droughts ‘in decades’, US NASA confirms (see satellite images of Villa Victoria reservoir below).

Villa Victoria reservoir, Mexico (Google Maps location, false colour Sentinel 2 satellite images, development from Jan 2019 — May 2021)

Climate change impact on Mexico’s water system, resulting in droughts and other associated perils are well studied.

The government was among the first and eager to promise to reduce emissions. Cities such as Mexico City are badly affected. Researchers estimate that natural water availability for the city could fall by 10 to 17 per cent by 2050 as temperatures climb, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported.

Mexico was among the first to pledge emission reduction targets. In 2009, Mexico adopted a long-term, economy-wide strategy aimed at reducing its emission levels by 30 per cent by 2020 and by 50 per cent in 2050, compared to 2000 levels. However as water-related protests show, locals might need more than promises to reduce emissions.

Researchers recognise that climate change in Mexico is increasingly taking a toll on its people, food and agriculture. While 2016 research found climate change in Mexico causes less rain, it also lowers yields for grains and has unexpected effects on food security.

Corn farmers suffered significant shocks in the past, especially in the south of the country — where the oldest corn strains on Earth are grown using traditional methods without irrigation — changing rain patterns and temperatures are already noticeable. It coincides where a number of water-related protest events take place.

Global data analysis

Non-violent but also violent events can originate from water and climate-linked issues. However, researchers found that water scarcity alone is seldomly the cause of armed conflict.

The pandemic crisis however might have encouraged citizens to act more violently. Covid-19 increased hand-washing and sanitation habits, which spurred water demand. For Mexico City, this put pressure on the Cutzamala reservoir which provides one-fourth of the greater city’s water needs.

Now a city with a more limited water supply, streets turned more violently. “In streets there was only enough tap water for half the houses, causing conflicts in an already violent area”, one Mexico City resident told Reuters.

Unsurprisingly, most water-related protests were recorded in regions where water shortages are a major problem, including poorer and arid regions, like South American economies including Chile, Mexico and Venezuela.

Research: ‘Water Rights and Water Fights: Preventing and Resolving Conflicts Before They Boil Over’; Barry S. Levy, MD, MPH corresponding author and Victor W. Sidel, MD

Not all protest records go back as far as Africa, one of the driest regions in the world, especially North Africa. Luckily, ACLED collects data from all African countries starting from 1997 to the present. Middle Eastern countries are covered from 2016 to the present (with the exception of Yemen, 2015–present), Saudi Arabia (2015–present), and Syria (2017–present); South and Southeast Asian countries are covered from 2010 to the present, with the exception of India (2016–present), Indonesia (2015–present), the Philippines (2016–present), and Malaysia (2018–present).

In the region of Northern African, where ACLED collects data as far back as 1997, the past decade saw a huge increase in water-related non-violent protests (see below).

North Africa is cited by experts as highly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change because of its strong exposure to increases in temperature, changes in freshwater availability, and population growth.

Graphic: TJ

In the Middle East where water was frequently a source of protest and non-violent conflicts, protest records notably increased (see below). Even though few events saw fatalities, there were instances where people got hurt.

When residents of the village of Katak and Arjanak villages, near Shahr-e Kord, in the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, clashed in 2016 over water issues after one villager’s sheep drank from a stream in the other village, two people got injured and two were killed.

Graphic: TJ

Whether climate protests are peaceful or not also seems to matter. One America academic study published in 2020 about the relationship between public support and protest established that peaceful protest and civil disobedience clearly raised public support compared with a control condition. Violent protests did not.

Such findings may matter in the light that Europe saw an explosion of climate change-related protests in the past years.

Across Europe, the leading group organising protests were the Fridays For Future movement. ACLED recorded around 1,000 protest events in 2020, more than three times as much as in 2019. Other groups such as and Sunrise movements, as well as Greenpeace, and Extinction Rebellion expanded their presence, increasingly taking matters over climate-related issues to the streets.

Last year, ACLED announced it would expand the reach of its real-time coverage to all of Europe. This might speed up researchers’ access to new data on climate-change-related strikes and protests.

Notes/data methodology

*ACLED says that “one reason for this is that these connections are often analytical determinations that different users may disagree on, so we leave it up to users to decide whether or not they think particular events are linked to such issues. Another is because a related ‘environmental issue’ may not always be clearly or consistently reported in source information”.

**Limitations: The source information are not always systematically reported, so it likely won’t be ‘comprehensive’ — there may be events where a related issue that would fall under the definition of what’s investigated simply wasn’t reported. Such a connection won’t be included in the ‘notes’ column of the data.