Anyone interested in peacemaking, poverty reduction, and Africa's future should read the new United Nations environment programme (UNEP) report Sudan: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment. This may sound like a technical report on Sudan's environment, but it is also a vivid study of how the natural environment, poverty, and population growth can interact to provoke terrible human-made disasters like the violence in Darfur.
Extreme poverty is a major cause, and predictor, of violence. The world's poorest places, like Darfur, are more likely to go to war than richer places. This is not only common sense, but is verified by studies and statistical analyses. In the UNEP's words, "There is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification, and conflict in Darfur."
Darfur, the poorest part of a very poor country, fits that dire pattern. Livelihoods are supported by semi-nomadic livestock-rearing in the north and subsistence farming in the south. It is far from ports and international trade, lacks basic infrastructure such as roads and electricity, and is extremely arid.
Declining rainfall has contributed directly or indirectly to crop failures, the encroachment of the desert into pasturelands, the decline of water and grassland for livestock, and massive deforestation. Rapid population growth - from around one million in 1920 to around seven million today - has made all of this far more deadly by slashing living standards.
The result has been increasing conflict between pastoralists and farmers, and the migration of populations from the north to the south. After years of simmering conflicts, clashes broke out in 2003 between rival ethnic and political groups, and between Darfur rebels and the national government, which in turn has supported brutal militias in "scorched earth" policies, leading to massive death and displacement.
While international diplomacy in Darfur focused on peacekeeping and on humanitarian efforts, peace can be neither achieved nor sustained until the underlying crises of poverty, environmental degradation, declining access to water, and chronic hunger are addressed. Stationing soldiers will not pacify a hungry, impoverished, and desperate population.
The UNEP report, and experiences elsewhere in Africa, suggests how to promote economic development in Darfur. Both people and livestock need assured water supplies. In some areas, this can be obtained through boreholes that tap underground aquifers. In other areas, rivers or seasonal surface runoff can be used for irrigation. In still other areas, longer-distance water pipelines might be needed.
With outside help, Darfur could increase the productivity of its livestock through improved breeds, veterinary care, collection of fodder, and other strategies. A meat industry could be developed in which Darfur's pastoralists would multiply their incomes by selling whole animals, meat products, processed goods (such as leather), and dairy products, with the Middle East a close and potentially lucrative export market. But Darfur will need help with transport and storage, power, veterinary care, and technical advice.
Social services, including health care and disease control, education, and adult literacy programs should also be promoted. Living standards could be improved significantly and rapidly through low-cost targeted investments in malaria control, school feeding programs, rainwater harvesting for drinking water, and mobile health clinics. Cell phone coverage could revolutionise communications in Darfur's vast territory, with major benefits for livelihoods, physical survival, and the maintenance of family ties.
The way to sustainable peace is through sustainable development. To reduce the risk of war, we must help impoverished people everywhere, not only in Darfur, to meet their basic needs, protect their natural environments, and get onto the ladder of economic development.