Earlier this month, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, took global leaders to task for dragging their heels on what he said is perhaps the world’s most daunting challenge—climate change.

“Our environment is burning,” he told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on July 3. “It’s melting. It’s flooding. It’s depleting. It’s dying.”

As if to underscore the point, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service and US National Centers for Environmental Prediction reported a few days later that July 4 and 5 were, globally, the hottest days since intense recordkeeping began in 1940. Actually, the records are most likely the warmest global temperatures in “at least 100,000 years,” CNN quoted a climate scientist as saying.

Alarming and alarmist headlines aside, the realities of an increasingly hostile climate have long been evident in the areas ICWA fellows are working and have seen firsthand how people are developing strategies to cope.

In the summer of 2022, ICWA fellow in Greece Steven Tagle investigated the impact of climate change on mastic production on the Agean island of Chios. Mastic is the resin of the schinos tree that is used as a flavoring for liquors and many foods in the eastern Mediterranean and the Maghreb. The 40 million-euro annual industry has been battered by high temperatures, unseasonable rains and wildfires in recent years. A fire in 2016 devastated up to 90 percent of the trees in several Chios villages.

The mastic-production cooperative on the island supports volunteer firefighters and has partnered with the Vodafone telecommunications company to boost early warning capabilities, Steven reported. Farmers are increasing the propagation of diverse tree varieties to meet demand while coping with the new climate realities.

The Cukorova plain in southern Turkey has some of the most fertile soil in the world (Joshua Levkowitz)

In Mardin, an ancient city not far from the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey, farmers who once depended on rainwater and the rivers of Mesopotamia to water their crops have been digging wells and pumping up precious groundwater for years, reports Joshua Levkowitz, who is studying the Syrian diaspora in Turkey and elsewhere. In addition to the direct effects of a changing climate, the water has been reduced by dams and more intensive farming further north.

“Due to the wells and climate change, the region is drying now,” Mardin City Council member Hatip Bey told Joshua during a recent visit. “North of Mardin, many small streams that flowed 10 years ago no longer exist.”

The well-digging and groundwater-pumping is largely unregulated, although the government has recently begun to charge a fee for water consumed.

Dervish Amak, whose family farms nearly 2,000 acres, told Joshua that when his relatives dug their first well in 1980, they struck water at just 20 feet. A new well dug last year, he said, is 2,000 feet deep.

The number of wells has gotten out of hand, he admitted, but added that he sees no alternative.

“Without them, we can only sit and wait for the rain to come,” he said. “And that does not look likely.”

A dry irrigation canal in Dogui-Dombi, Senegal (James Courtright)

James Courtright, who is investigating Fulbe (also referred to as Fulani) societies in West Africa, has also noticed the proliferation of groundwater wells and the use of gasoline-powered pumps to extract the water.

“One of the most common strategies adapted by settled farming communities from eastern Nigeria to southern Mauritania is to intensify agricultural production using motor pumps to irrigate fields in the dry season,” James said, adding he has seen verdant green rice fields in eastern Nigeria as early as March, the heart of the eight-month dry season in the Sahel, the shifting band of savannah and scrubland between the Sahara and the south African rain forests.

The pressure of the changing climate threatens the sometimes-tense relations between farmers and nomadic herders in the region. Over generations, Fulbe herders have altered their migration patterns in response to the changing climate. In recent decades, that means spending more time each year near areas with settled farmers.

“When the farmers cultivate more land, the herders lose the routes we need to migrate,” Abdoulaye Sow, the leader of the Fulbe group Tabital Pulaaku in Mali told James.

Although such tensions often help produce conflict, they can also prompt local communities to develop new mechanisms to resolve disputes and share scarce resources. Farmers and herders in Futa Toro, an area of southern Mauritania and northern Senegal, have successfully agreed on livestock corridors and rules for the use of the space that have minimized conflict and violence, James says.

“Conflict is not necessarily inevitable.”

Top photo: Mastic producers in Greece spread a white calcium carbonate powder under each tree (Steven Tagle)