The Sahel Uncertainty: Climate change and Insurgency

The Sahel Uncertainty: Climate change and Insurgency

The Sahel is increasingly affected by underdevelopment, endemic poverty, criminality, and insurgency. Climate change has recently extrapolated these problems by making essential resources scarce. This has multiplied conflicts between farming and herding communities and is forcing locals to migrate. Will climate change make the Sahel a powder keg of tension? 

The Sahel: One of the poorest regions in the world

The Sahel is one of the poorest and most environmentally degraded areas in the world. Experts estimates it consists of about 90 million people, but the population is expected to increase to 1 billion by 2050. According to the United Nations, approximately 80% of the farmland is deteriorated and much less productive than in the past. Droughts and floods are becoming more frequent and affecting food production. About 50 million people depend on livestock rearing for survival, but the land available to pastoralists is diminishing. Adverse climate conditions are affecting the locals survival by making natural resources – water, food, land – scarcer. It is further raising intra-regional and circular migration – like in Chad – and creating local tensions.

Lake Chad has reduced roughly 90% in the last 50 years. Since it represents the most critical water resource in the region, scarcity has increased clashes among locals. The land for agriculture and farming so reduces, and livestock farmers have to go South where there is land for agriculture but agriculturists already use it. Therefore, conflicts have emerged between farmers and agriculturists.

According to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), armed conflicts in the region are increasing due to climate change and are expected to increase soon.

Climate change and instability

Climate change and insurgency are becoming increasingly interconnected. The academic community, however, rejects direct relationship between violence and climate change. It supports the idea that it multiplies violence rather than cause it.

Socio-economic, historical, and political factors certainly play a role in armed conflicts. According to José Luengo Cabrera, former GRI analyst and West Africa researcher at International Crisis Group, the region experienced unprecedented levels of organised violence in 2018. For example, Mali and Burkina Faso registered the highest conflict-related death tolls in years.

Climate change has, however, become a further element of instability in the Sahel as resources dwindle. Although it is not the direct cause of conflicts, the UNSC has proved climate change exacerbates tensions in poor regions, because it makes resources used to live and get income scarcer. The presence of terrorism, insurgency, corruption and weak governance then affects national and international efforts for stabilisation as insurgents and terrorists try to gain control over the few left resources for their interests.

The region is highly dependent on natural resources and will be deeply affected by adverse climate conditions. UNESCO recognised in 2018, the current rate of climate change is a never experienced crisis with little known effects on stability, prosperity.

The effects of climate change as well as of ongoing conflict affect people’s resilience capabilities and the adoption of appropriate social, economic and security measures for regional stabilisation. Persistent displacement of people, climate migration, weakened social cohesion because of large-scale violence, these are all factors compromising efforts for proper social and economic development.

Climate change and instability

The incapacity of Sahelian governments to face insurgency and terrorism (i.e. Boko Haram) has indeed effects on stabilisation and the possibility for international donors or organisations to implement appropriate environmental policies and the use of technology to face climate change.

Therefore, when natural disasters occur, land production falls, causing substantial economic losses with adverse social effects. The use of violence by terrorist groups and insurgents, to get control over neighbouring resources, increases and people are forced to migrate. The notion of ”climate refugees” defines the issue as refers to environmental degradation as a further factor for refugee movements.

Defeating insurgency is crucial to have areas where implement environmental policies and to enable international donors and organisations to use technology to face climate change. This is necessary to increase the conditions for stability, traditional livelihoods, peaceful co-existence. Water scarcity and food insecurity are the most immediate effects of climate change and present higher risks for livelihood and violence. Mobility and migration become then inevitable as adaptation strategies to an increasingly challenging situation.

The Sahelian government are too weak and incapable of developing proper policies to address the leading causes of instability and environmental degradation. The help of International and regional organisation (i.e. UN, African Union, the European Union) can allow implementing tangible measures to face climate change – i.e. more modern irrigation systems as well as less invasive fertilising. It is also in the interest of the EU to address some of the causes of migration. The future challenge will be to create the conditions for deployment of technology and personnel as well as the resilience of the agricultural sector to water scarcity and food insecurity.

Categories: Insights, Security

About Author

Paolo Zucconi

Paolo Zucconi is Research Fellow at the Global Center for Security Studies, Contributor for Intersec (The Journal of International Security) and Global Security Review. He holds an MA in International Security Studies, a Postgraduate Certificate in Intelligence and National Security, and a BA in Political Science and International Relations.