Author: Kheira Tarif
Site of publication: Reliefweb
Type of publication: Insight
Date of publication: February 2022
There is growing evidence that the adverse effects of climate change increase both the risk and severity of violent conflict. The specific ways in which these effects impact violent conflict are, however, determined by local social, political and economic dynamics.1 While climate change is not the only cause of violence and conflict, it can have both direct and indirect consequences for local, national and even regional security.
Climate change, vulnerability and insecurity in West Africa
Climate change in West Africa
Unprecedented changes in temperatures and precipitation are projected by the late 2030s and early 2040s in both the Sahel and tropical West Africa. Temperatures are expected to rise 3–6°C above late 20th century levels in the intermediate and worst-case emissions scenarios. In the Sahel, annual precipitation decreased throughout the 1900s, leading to recurrent extreme droughts that had severe consequences for local ecosystems and communities. While future precipitation in the western Sahel is expected to decrease overall, more frequent storms and extreme rainfall in other parts could increase the risk of floods. Rising temperatures are expected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, and to affect the West African monsoon season.
In agricultural regions between the Sahel and the coastline, higher temperatures, increased evaporation and decreasing precipitation are projected to accentuate the risk of water stress, particularly in the dry seasons. From Senegal to Nigeria, rising sea levels will affect densely populated coastal regions vulnerable to waterborne diseases, heavy rainfall, floods and coastal erosion.
Climate vulnerability and governance
The physical effects of climate change interact with existing social, economic and political vulnerabilities to increase the risk of violent conflict. Governance is a critical variable in climate vulnerability, as it can create or accentuate inequalities that worsen the effects of climate change on specific groups.
High reliance on agriculture is an important feature of climate vulnerability in West Africa. Agriculture, mainly informal and subsistence farm ing, makes up approximately 42.7 per cent of total regional employment. Livestock are a cornerstone of the regional food economy, contributing as much as 25 per cent of the total combined GDP of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Agricultural sector governance also informs climate vulnerability. Population growth and an expanding commercial agricultural sector alter land use and land cover, while more intensive use of natural resources can exacerbate environmental degradation and water availability. This increases exposure to the negative effects of climate change, including rising temperatures and more erratic rainfall, on water resources and crop and livestock health.
The physical effects of climate change interact with existing social, economic and political vulnerabilities to increase the risk of violent conflict
Climate change also affects the sustainability and productivity of traditionally women-led activities and, due to the extra time spent collecting water and firewood, can increase the domestic workload of women and girls. Gender disparities in education, mobility, land and asset ownership and access to financial resources affect the livelihood security of women and their households. For example, although women make up approximately 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force across Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal, only 8 per cent of agricultural landowners are women.
Insecurity and humanitarian crises
Climate vulnerability is also informed by the volatile security situation in some parts of West Africa, with insecurity and armed conflict affecting local and national capacities to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.
Multiple armed groups are active in some zones. In the Sahel this includes the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM); while in the Lake Chad region Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) have a significant presence. As a consequence, regional and international counterinsurgency operations have proliferated, accompanied by reports of state violence against civilians.
Community defence groups have also mobilized in response to insecurity, leading to a rise in violent inter-communal attacks and forced displacement in Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord and Soum, Mali’s central Mopti, Niger’s northern Tillaberi region, and Nigeria’s North West zone. In Nigeria’s Middle Belt, conflicts between farmers and herders have escalated into planned community attacks that sometimes surpass the lethality of Boko Haram.
Parts of West Africa face complex humanitarian emergencies linked to violence, internal displacement, poverty and food insecurity. The number of people in need of assistance in the Sahel and Lake Chad more than doubled between 2019 and 2021, while the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) registered in West Africa increased from under 2 million in 2014 to more than 7 million in 2021; including over 3 million in Nigeria alone.
Climate change, disasters and violent conflict have a substantial impact on women and girls. For example, in the Lake Chad region of Chad, women and girls face sexual, physical and psychological violence, as well as structural disadvantages due to restricted access to land ownership, education and justice systems.
Pathways of climate insecurity
The effects of climate change undermine livelihood security, food security, physical safety and health. Research shows that as well as the challenges climate change poses to human security, it can increase the risk of violent conflict: collective violence driven by social, political and/or economic motives.
Worsening livelihood conditions
The adverse effects of climate change can increase the risk of violent conflict between groups that earn their livelihoods in climate-sensitive agriculture, pastoralism and fishery. Worsening livelihood conditions feed social, economic and political grievances by accentuating the marginalization of affected groups. In the absence of alternative livelihoods, there is greater risk of people using violence to protect or access natural resources.
Inflexible livelihoods accentuate local conflict risk
The effects of climate change on temperatures and rainfall impact groups that rely primarily or entirely on natural resources such as freshwater, crops and pastures. The extent to which climate change leads to livelihood deterioration also depends on an individual’s capacity to adapt, for example by developing new income sources. Where adaptation capacities are weak, or alternative income-generating opportunities are limited, there is greater risk of climate change effects fostering local resource conflicts. In the Lake Chad region there is a higher risk of conflict around water access and use in places where water is critical to sustaining livelihoods and, as such, livelihoods are more vulnerable and less flexible.
Gendered impacts of worsening livelihood conditions
Men and women in West Africa have differing customary roles within agricultural and pastoral livelihoods. In Nigeria’s farming communities, women traditionally provide support to male relatives during planting, harvesting and crop processing; in pastoral communities, women process dairy milk and grow seasonal crops while men manage cattle herding. In both situations, women’s livelihood strategies are generally defined by their male family members; as such, women often have less agency in defining adaptation strategies.
These customary roles can be altered when livelihood strategies are adapted to changing resource availability. In southern Burkina Faso male pastoralists increasingly diversify income using subsistence farming and fodder cultivation, with women and children assuming herd management These customary roles can be altered when livelihood strategies are adapted to changing resource availability. In southern Burkina Faso male pastoralists increasingly diversify income using subsistence farming and fodder cultivation, with women and children assuming herd management responsibilities that were previously carried out by men. In the dry season, young men herd cattle to water points during the day; in the rainy season, men take the cattle out at night, while women and children manage small ruminants grazing during the day. Although these adaptation strategies can increase the workload on women and girls, they potentially give them a larger role in income generation and decision-making around livelihood strategies.
Entry points for addressing migration, mobility and conflict
Local vulnerabilities, changing pastoral mobility and governance inform the relationship between climate change, migration and violent conflict in West Africa. Groups dependent on climate-sensitive natural resources are at highest risk of climate change, violent conflict and displacement. Responses to climate change and violent conflict can result in resource use being concentrated, thereby heightening the risk of resource competition. Changing pastoral mobility patterns also exacerbate the risk of farmer– herder conflicts, particularly when governance systems create inequalities between livelihood groups. Increasing migration and changing pastoral mobility patterns mean that regions less impacted by the effects of climate change may actually face greater conflict risks than highly climate-exposed regions. Understanding this link between climate change, migration and violent conflict in West Africa can help in identifying conflict hotspots and preventing escalation.
Tactical considerations by armed groups
As well as increasing the risk of local conflicts, climate change can affect the dynamics of broader hostilities by altering natural, human and other resource availability, and providing new opportunities for armed groups. In East Africa and South and South East Asia, armed groups have used the impacts of extreme weather on livelihoods to boost recruitment. Moreover, in East Africa, armed groups have altered their behaviour in response to weather conditions, using wetter weather and thicker vegetation cover to mask their operations.
Groups dependent on climate-sensitive natural resources are at highest risk of climate change, violent conflict and displacement. Responses to climate change and violent conflict can result in resource use being concentrated, thereby heightening the risk of resource competition. Changing pastoral mobility patterns also exacerbate the risk of farmer– herder conflicts, particularly when governance systems create inequalities between livelihood groups
There is comparatively limited reference in the literature sample to the relationship between climate change, the tactical considerations of armed groups and violent conflict in West Africa. There is evidence that short-term rainfall deficits in the Niger River Basin increase the risk of political violence by undermining livelihood and food security. Armed groups have capitalized on the effects of climate change on livelihoods to gain support and recruits, while military operations against armed groups in climate-exposed regions have sometimes accentuated livelihood insecurity and increased local vulnerability to climate change. In all cases, the research highlights the importance of governance: weak governance increases the risk of insecurity; harmful governance accentuates vulnerability; and non-state or informal governance can offer an alternative.
Implications for research and policymaking
Along with these findings, two challenges for research and policymaking remain. First, though this paper identifies important findings from local case studies, the size and scope of the literature makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions on the relationship between climate change and violent conflict across West Africa. Despite the broad, high-level policy interest in this topic and region, this paper identified a relatively small sample of rigorous academic research.
Moreover, even within existing research, much of the region is neglected; coastal regions are poorly represented in the literature sample, despite being projected to experience significant, if different, climate impacts. The lack of research on how local climate vulnerabilities may produce risks that manifest differently—or are labelled differently—in particular contexts, remains an important challenge for both research and policymaking.
The second challenge is the absence of long-term perspectives on future climate change and violent conflict. Only one research paper in the sample (looking at colonial Nigeria) considered the long-term effects of climate change on environmental degradation and violent conflict. Furthermore, no study considered future trends in climate change and violent conflict. Without long-term perspectives on how climate change and violent conflict interact, there is no way of conceptualizing ways climate mitigation and adaptation programmes risk unintentionally creating new, or accentuating existing, conflict dynamics. As a result, policymakers are left without the evidence they need to promote climate- and conflict-sensitive development in West Africa.
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