Authors: Peter Schmidt, Robert Muggah
Affiliated organization: Igarapé Institute
Type of publication: Bulletin
Date of publication: February 2021
The relationships between the region’s changing climate, disruption of livelihoods, deepening food insecurity, and social unrest and violence are increasingly difficult to ignore.
Climate change comprises a wide range of processes including sudden changes in temperature, unusual fluctuations in precipitation and the onset and frequency of extreme weather events.
The mediating factors that shape the onset and intensity of unrest include rising food insecurity, migration and displacement, urbanization, growing competition over pasture and arable land and the presence or absence of governmental conflict- mediation and resource-allocation systems.
Climate change is a threat multiplier in West Africa. More than 64% of West Africa’s population is under 24 and 60% of the active labor force relies on subsistence agriculture.
As livelihood opportunities dry up, the likelihood that the unemployed join violent extremist groups is rising, as is their likelihood to join criminal organizations involved in trafficking, the black market and sex work.
“Maladaptive” conflict-resolution initiatives insensitive to climate change run the risk of undermining climate resilience, while poorly conceived and executed climate-adaptation initiatives threaten to exacerbate conflict.
Some 85% of the Economic Community of West African States’s (ECOWAS’) estimated 103 million inhabitants are concentrated in 12 coastal countries. As a result, coastal areas are experiencing severe stress, including significant coastal retreat and soil degradation due to overuse.
The West African coast between Mauritania and Nigeria is predicted to experience rates of sea-level rise considerably above the global average. Africa’s population in low-elevation coastal zones is rising at an annual rate of 3.3%, more than double the global average. Much of this growth is taking place in four of the subregion’s largest cities—Lagos, Abidjan, Dakar and Accra.
As livelihood opportunities dry up, the likelihood that the unemployed join violent extremist groups is rising, as is their likelihood to join criminal organizations involved in trafficking, the black market
These climate-driven changes pose a grave threat to food security. At least 4.8 million people in West Africa, or 16% of the coastal population, rely on fishing to sustain their livelihoods. Yet fishing across the region is threatened.
These pressures on key industries will also generate social and security-related challenges. As access to fish and arable land decreases, young men in Agbavi, Togo have joined criminal syndicates involved in fuel smuggling and beach-sand mining, an illegal enterprise that worsens erosion.
Climate change is accelerating transnational migration and displacement. It is also accelerating the spread of organized violence in the Sahel. Climate vulnerability is compounded by the region’s high dependence on rain-fed agriculture and natural resources, weak governance, rapid population growth and chronic humanitarian crises due to recurrent drought, flooding, crop failures, epidemics and violent conflict.
Push factors such as reduced water access and communal tensions – together with the involvement of military, paramilitary and police actors – often push pastoralists into new territories. Rising instability in turn can result in (violent) competition and tension with farmers.
Rising instability is increasingly likely because pastoralists are forced into areas that were previously exclusively agricultural. Violent clashes are more likely in areas already destabilized by violence and with more limited state presence, including central and northern Mali and in central and northern Nigeria.
The Lake Chad Basin (LCB) is a case study of the climate-security nexus. Because Lake Chad is only a few meters deep, it is particularly sensitive to a changing climate. Dramatic changes to weather patterns will disrupt an already precarious economy. Rising food insecurity, combined with reduced access to basic resources, deepening economic marginalization and poor health can increase desperation, fuel grievances and radicalization and, where mobilized by elites, increase the likelihood of outright violence.
Several national, bilateral and multilateral entities are already implementing subnational and regional responses. A well-known example is the “great green wall,” an US$ 8 billion plan to reforest 247 million acres of degraded land in a broad, 4,815-mile swathe along the Sahel’s southern edge from Dakar to Djibouti. However, terrorism and corruption have hampered the project in landlocked Central African countries like Burkina Faso.
Mounting environmental and security issues have prompted calls by international NGOs and local activists for “environmental peace-building,” a two- birds-with-one-stone approach wherein warring parties find common ground tackling shared environmental threats.
A key priority is to ensure that climate-related peace-building efforts do not unintentionally undermine climate resilience. Another important consideration is making sure that climate adaptation projects do not exacerbate underlying tensions.
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