Sudan Floods

Youth and Climate Action: An Interview with Nisreen Elsaim

An aerial view of flooding in Khartoum, Sudan in September. Sudanese authorities declared a nationwide three-month state of emergency after the record-breaking torrential floods. (MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images)

The impacts of climate change on physical landscapes and natural resources have the potential to exacerbate conflicts in places already stressed for core resources like food and water. In these contexts, the role of youth in addressing the impacts is growing.

It is for this reason that United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change in July of this year. The role of the group is to amplify youth voices and to engage young people in dialogues around addressing the climate emergency. Nisreen Elsaim, a Sudanese climate activist and Chair of Sudan Youth Organization on Climate Change, is a member of the advisory group and spoke with Jimena Leiva Roesch and Ahmed Gad of the International Peace Institute on the essential role of youth in climate action, especially in conflict situations. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How do the effects of climate change halt development?

First of all, 70 percent of our economy depends on natural resources. Climate change affects this 70 percent, and thus almost every aspect of our daily life. For security, it is interlinked to cattle, crops and so on. We [Sudan] are not an industrial country, so anything that affects the natural resources in the country affects the people and the development of the country. The climate crisis has also brought more natural disasters that destroy existing infrastructure, as witnessed with the floods a few months back. So, instead of starting from the already existing infrastructure, we always have to start from zero because of the effects of the climate crisis.

Last, but not least, the conflict in Darfur—made worse by the effects of climate change on natural resources—took a lot of energy, time, and money from the government that could have been used to address climate issues. Our annual budget in the previous regime and during conflict times was: 70 percent of the budget to defense, 5 percent to health, 1.7 percent to education, and only 0.3 percent to the environment.

What is the link between climate change and conflict in Sudan?

The link is very much around the instinct to survive. People and human beings want to survive whatever the situation is, and this survival doesn’t always involve taking care of others’ needs. Many areas in Sudan are severely affected by droughts and other extreme weather events, so a lot of tribes and people have had to actually migrate from their area to another one. Here we have three scenarios.

One: people migrate to another area already inhabited by other people and resources are diminishing because of climate change, so a conflict starts between the newcomers and the people already inhabiting that area.  

Two: people move to the city and they work in very marginalized and unorganized jobs, and conflict can arise because some people not wanting them close by due to security and cultural reasons.

Three: people move to another place and they leave a gap in the place they left, relationships and communities easily break in this vacuum.

Any shortage or severe degradation in natural resources can ruin the equilibrium of the ecosystem. And when this happens during a conflict, then the chaos gets worse, and you can expect everything, even genocide.

Then there are the psychological effects. For example, shortages of water will cause stress among people and this stress can create more conflict. There is also pressure on access to services like education, which will result in a high illiteracy percentage. You can expect in those situations that problems will more likely be solved by conflict.

How do youth play a role in building peace and supporting climate action in such environments?

Young people play a big role: collecting data, helping affected families, finding shelter, rescuing some people, or building barriers against the flow of the water—they actually do a lot. When it comes to climate change, they try very hard to raise awareness on climate change, because knowledge is a huge game changer and they know that when people know what’s happening, they can solve it or deal with it better.

I think the main issue that we are dealing with in Sudan right now is due to the political situation and lack of funding for youth organizations. This has forced youth to be reactive and not be able to take proactive actions. Being in a reactionary position is not favorable nor very sustainable. It’s by far better to have a proactive action then reactive. Being proactive is made even more difficult since there’s we don’t actually have an early warning system, for example, or any studies that can actually tell us what’s going to happen so we can prevent it or at least warn people.

Do you think that your role as Chair of the Advisory Group could help youth take on a more proactive role?

Yes, I’m trying to, but first, there is an issue of lack of trust between international donors and young people. This issue of trust doesn’t rely on facts, but perceptions. Donors believe youth can’t deal with big amounts of money, that they don’t have the capacity to run projects. There is a big lack of trust that needs to be resolved first, otherwise young people are unlikely to actually be given any kind of financial support to do these activities.

What I’m actually trying to do as the Chair of the UN secretary-general’s Advisory Group on Climate is to bridge the gap between the big donors and youth movement and to try to build trust between the two parties.

In Sudan, for example, the issue of trust has been two-sided. First, the government did not trust young people, so then it didn’t matter what people did or didn’t do, the government would not listen. And when young people don’t trust governments—as in Sudan—then it doesn’t really matter what governments do or don’t do, young people will not help, they will always have parallel paths, which isn’t favorable. This was the situation in the previous regime, the young people were doing work in one area and the previous regime in another area.

How important was it to have climate change mentioned in the Juba agreement, have you seen any positive effects?

Yes, it’s a positive because we have had more than 7 peace agreements and none of them actually mentioned climate change, so this is a huge step forward. The main issue is it is unclear how much understanding the people who actually wrote it or people who actually are going to implement the peace agreement have about climate change and environmental degradation.  So having a session for the decision makers, policy makers, leaders, etc. to showcase the link between climate change and the conflict, how climate change can affect this peace agreement and make peace unsustainable, and how climate change can revert us back to the circle of conflict. It is a lot of information that they must have and understand to realize how serious it is.

What strengths do youth have in climate activism?

The strongest and most valuable asset is having no other options. Doing climate action is the only way, the only solution, the only answer. Everyone is doing climate action, in different ways and areas, activities, but there is no other option.

I think the second valuable asset is knowledge. Young people are lucky to have the Internet, to have many sources of information, and to have people that actually opened the door. We have the benefit of knowledge, of people who came before us and took the lead, and of determination, because I think young people are very much determined to save this planet and have a future for their kids and grandkids.

Lastly, there is flexibility. While many countries don’t allow kids to strike, youth took on many different actions to show their support for reducing climate impacts. I don’t think we think the same old way or have the same mentality of other generations to do something in a specific way. Youth have greater flexibility in changing our ways when it is needed. And this flexibility shows in our daily interactions with each other, especially when comparing youth-led organizations to global or multilateral organizations.

With your background in physics, what inspired you to become a climate activist?

There is a lot of physics in the science of climate change. When I grew up a bit more, I started to learn of the importance of diplomacy and political engagements, so I wanted something that can actually bring the aspect of science and diplomacy or policy together, and it was climate change.

In addition, the more I read about climate change, the more I saw how interlinked it is with our situation in Sudan. Anyone who wants a better life for their people, their future, or better development in their countries, can especially, in a country like Sudan, notice the effects of climate change and how it can stop development in a country.