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Climate change escalates Darfur crisis

Less rainfall on the fringes of the Sahara Desert is putting more of a strain on resources than ever before.

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With Darfur refugee women waiting up to two days for their chance to fill buckets at a communal water point, it's only a matter of time before bickering turns into a full-fledged fight.

In the 115-degree F. heat of the Touloum refugee camp, just across Sudan's border in eastern Chad, the stakes are high. Refugees receive only 4.5 liters, on average, per family member – just enough for drinking and cooking. A family that misses its day or gets shoved aside at the water pump may not survive.

On this day, a younger woman has been caught cutting in line. She and an older woman wrestle each other to the ground.

"I have been waiting here two days for my turn, and if the water finishes I will have to ask for water from other people," says Khadija Musa, the elderly woman. "Sometimes I have to borrow water to cook. Our clothes are filthy, we cannot wash without water." She rubs her shoulder and sighs. "The only thing left is to die."

Competition for water – in refugee camps, between farmers and herders, and between countries – has long sparked conflict in the arid region and forms one of the main causes of the war in Sudan's Darfur region. But the trouble is only beginning, as it becomes clear that dramatic climate change will have its sharpest effects in Africa, leading to rising hardship, massive population displacement, and, in some cases, all-out war.

Yet a growing number of aid workers here say that the same issue that pits communities against each other can also bring them together. Solving common problems – improving access to water for farmers and herders alike – could be the first step toward reconciliation, and lasting peace.

"In a way, water can be a divider or it can bring people together," says Caroline Saint-Mleux, head of Care International's office in Iriba, Chad, which manages two refugee camps in the Iriba area.

"Is [water] the only cause of the problem?" she asks. "Obviously, everyone knows it's a very complex conflict. But at the same time, you can use [water] to bring the communities back together.... You have to have [the warring parties] talk about a common need, and after that you might have them talk about something else that would start giving other solutions to the conflict."

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