Authors : Amjad Muhammad Khan Aude-Sophie Rodella
Affiliated organisations : Water Global Practice, World Bank Group,
Type of publication : Policy Research Working Paper
Date of publication : October 2021
The Sahel region is renowned for its extreme desert climate as well as its frontline exposure to climate variability. Over the past decade, this region has also had to contend with an increase in state fragility rooted in geopolitical instability of the broader region.
The results of this study suggest that the geographic specificity of the Sahel region further amplifies the strategic socio-economic value of water in the region. Changes in water availability induced by climate variation induce conflict.
And when conflict breaks out due to a plausibly exogenous factors, violence is more likely to be targeted at regions equipped with irrigation infrastructure, particularly valuable due to its ability to buffer against fluctuations in rainfall-availability.
Regional Context and Background
Fragility in the Sahel is the result of complex factors, some with deep historical roots and others more recent and extending beyond the region. Additional factors such as a high population growth rate have wielded an influence on other factors including a large youth bulge heightening poverty and low employment issues to which climate vulnerability and now the COVID-19 crisis further contributes to form a dangerous “fragility trap”.
This suggests a significant role for infrastructure investments in the water sector aimed at reducing the effects of climate variability, such as irrigation, in mitigating conflict risks.
The results of this study suggest that the geographic specificity of the Sahel region further amplifies the strategic socio-economic value of water in the region. Changes in water availability induced by climate variation induce conflict
Climate Variation, Livelihood Shocks and Conflict: Results
Climate-induced negative income shocks in the African continent generate persistent increases in conflict incidence, and that such conflict spills over into neighboring regions.
Results indicate that climate-induced variation in income/ food security is an important driver of conflict incidence, particularly for the countries in the Sahel region. Specifically, the incidence of conflict is found to be lower when there are favorable conditions for agricultural crops due to increased soil-moisture as measured by the growing-season Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI).
A corollary of the negative relationship between SPEI and conflict incidence would be that investments in infrastructure and technologies that reduce exposure to such climate-induced variability in the soil water, such as irrigation infrastructure, may reduce the risks of conflict.
However, this section adds a nuance to this argument, presenting evidence documenting that such investments may make land a more valuable target and thus result in increased conflict incidence during times of heightened instability, especially in high-scarcity settings such as the Sahel.
Looking at the trends in conflict for the G5 Sahel countries and the rest of West Africa, and differentiating between irrigated and unirrigated land, an important difference is observed between the two regions with respect to the locations experiencing conflict breakout in the post-2011 period of heightened fragility.
Countries in the rest of Western Africa experienced an uptick in conflict, but there is no differential trend based on irrigation availability.
In the G5 Sahel countries, however, the sharp increase in conflict in the post-Arab Spring period is concentrated in regions where irrigation exists, as demonstrated by the differential trends in the post-2011 period.
In the G5 Sahel region, irrigated areas experienced a much higher likelihood of conflict events following the exogenous increase in fragility in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. demonstrated in the earlier section, the specific agroclimatic context of the Sahel countries leaves the region more exposed to risks of conflict from climate induced income variation (albeit, in normal times).
Thus, during periods of heightened fragility, irrigated areas may be a “high-value” target for political groups engaged in conflict looking to gain income/ food security from land-grabs.
While water is widely recognized as critical to development, economic research on its systematic – rather than by sub- sector – contribution has been limited. This is particularly the case in fragile countries where data gaps further curtail opportunities for quantitative research.
None of the countries of the Sahel are food self-sufficient, making them vulnerable to climate variability.
Rural areas tend to be the hardest hit – with negative impacts on agricultural incomes, rural livelihoods, and survival in general. Conflict may arise in response to such insecurity, and may further reduce food production, disrupt supply chains and impact both formal and non-formal social protection systems.
In the G5 Sahel countries, however, the sharp increase in conflict in the post-Arab Spring period is concentrated in regions where irrigation exists, as demonstrated by the differential trends in the post-2011 period
The specific vulnerability of irrigated areas during periods of heightened fragility warrants appropriate policy consideration in the preparation of new interventions, both in the context of a surge in funding for the Sahel region in particular and also as part of COVID-19 recovery efforts more broadly.
It is essential to ensure that the deployment and design of interventions and infrastructure accounts for the existing local context and potential externalities, an issue that is all the more critical within the larger context of climate change.
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