Does climate change play a role?


With the recent coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, the Sahel has once again become the center of global attention. Even before these events, instability and insecurity were on the rise in the Sahel, exacerbated not only by poverty, inequality and marginalization, but also by the increased impacts of climate change. To better understand the interplay of climate change and instability, in a recent article, we take a closer look at these factors in the West African countries of the Sahel: Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

The entire Sahel region stretches from the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast to the Red Sea on the east coast. Crossing the heart of Africa, the Sahel is a region with approximately 100 million inhabitants among the most disadvantaged, the most marginalized and the poorest in the world. Per capita income levels are lower than other parts of Africa and up to 80% of the population subsists on less than $2 a day. High unemployment, weak governance, political unrest and threats from radical Islamist groups all contribute to regional instability.

Without minimizing the effects of poor governance in fueling conflicts in the Sahel, we argue that climate change plays an amplifying role, drying out the livelihoods of the majority of people who are highly dependent on natural resources, and therefore sparking fights for increasingly scarce resources. .

Climate change-related disasters in the Sahel are becoming more frequent

This situation is exacerbated by the particular vulnerability of the region to the impacts of climate change. Figure 1 shows the magnitude and rate of temperature increase in selected countries. Indeed, experts predict that natural disasters, including desertification, drought, floods and sea level rise, will be both more frequent and more intense in the coming years, threatening the availability of resources. natural crucial.

Figure 1. Mean annual temperatures in Sahelian countries

Source: KNMI, authors’ calculations.

These trends are particularly troubling in a region where people’s livelihoods and resilience are so heavily dependent on natural resources, especially as rising temperatures reduce both water resources and crop yields. Overall, climate change could cost Africa a loss of agricultural production of 17-28%, compared to 3-16% globally; a consequence of this loss of production will be to further jeopardize food security.

Violence in the Sahel is also on the rise

Along with rising temperatures and erratic rainfall, the incidence of violence has recently increased in the Sahel. In fact, there is strong evidence that climate change, which dries up sources of income, also fuels conflict: for example, a 2004 study found that a 1 degree Celsius increase leads to a 4.5% increase the impact of civil wars.

Figure 2. Evolution of conflicts in the Sahel, 1997-2019

Figure 2. Evolution of conflicts in the Sahel, 1997-2019

Source: ACLED and authors’ calculations.

The Malian case

Mali provides an excellent illustration of the complex link between climate change, livelihoods and conflict in the Sahel. Since the early 2000s, this country, hard hit by climate change, has also experienced several types of violence, including riots in major cities, communal violence, a jihadist insurgency and a military coup.

In the Niger River delta in Mali, for example, farmers, herders and fishermen have long coexisted and local institutions have historically arbitrated conflicts between them; sources of income are linked to ethnicity. Muslim Fulani and Tuareg tend to be pastoralists, while Songhai and Bambara animists tend to be farmers.

Patterns of community conflict in Mali illustrate how ethnic and religious factors, as well as government failure, interact with climate change to cause conflict. One such example comes from the Niger River, which supports intense agricultural activity by farmers and herders. While farmers grow rice, herders grow burgu, a livestock fodder crop used to feed herds during the dry season. Burgu grows in deeper water than rice, and during dry spells, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change, rice farmers often encroach on burgu fields, leading to communal conflicts between pastoralists and farmers.

Since the 1950s, a quarter of burgu fields have been converted to rice paddies (Kouyaté, 2006) due to the decrease in rainfall in the area. The displacement of agricultural activities to encroach on burgu fields and the related resistance of pastoralists to protect their livelihoods is a prime example of how water scarcity triggered by climate change can fuel conflict. In the absence of strong institutions to arbitrate these disputes, in recent years Fulani and Tuareg have increasingly joined the jihadist insurgency in northern Mali. This is the result of two intertwined factors: alleged government discrimination against these ethnic groups and conflicts over water resources that have been exacerbated by climate change. In this regard, it should be noted that Ahmadou Koufa, the leader of MUJAO, is Fulani, while Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, is Tuareg. In this context, jihadist attacks lead to reprisals from Bambara and Songhai farmers, triggering a vicious cycle of intolerance and violence.

The relationship between climate change and conflict is the source of much controversy in the literature. While some authors view climate-induced scarcity as driving resource struggles, a growing body of empirical evidence points more forcefully to the role of institutional failures in conflict. In our article, we use the Sahel as a case study showing that conflict has many interconnected factors, including state failure, demographics, and rent-seeking behaviors. By generating increased scarcity, climate change further aggravates these factors in a context where there are few alternative options to address food insecurity and support livelihoods in addition to natural resources. Therefore, adaptation to climate change should be at the heart of policy aimed at mitigating conflicts in the Sahel.


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