macroafricaintel | Climate change & conflict in West Africa (2)

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Africa is most vulnerable to climate change
The future effects of climate change are likely to be extremely severe in Africa. As a largely agrarian economy, based on a diverse landmass with wide climatic variations, and with limited adaptive capacity and political will to manage the consequences of adverse climate change, the continent is inherently vulnerable. Africa’s forests are diminishing: Sub-Saharan Africa’s forest area, as a proportion of total land area, was 27.1% in 2015, down from 30.6% in 1990. Due to logging and farming, only about 10 percent of West Africa’s coastal rainforests remain. The effects of climate change could be quite severe in these parts, because trees mitigate the effects of climate change.

Climate change promises to bring more frequent and intense floods and droughts around the world, with the number of people suffering severe water stress estimated to be as many as 3.2 billion to 5.7 billion by 2050, depending on the season. In Africa, droughts have become increasingly frequent and last longer. The resultant water stress affects agricultural production and threatens the sustainability of farming communities. Studies show there is almost a 100% probability of warmer and more frequent hot days, warmer and fewer cold days and nights on the continent. Agricultural yields are less in warmer environments. There would also be increased insect outbreaks. Wildfires, increased livestock deaths and greater water stress are also some of the expected impacts.

Climate change has already begun to affect food production in Africa and around the world. During the 2017-18 Kenyan drought, semi-nomadic Maasai and Samburu herders reportedly exchanged their daughters for livestock so they could survive. After frequent droughts diminished their livestock, other nomadic Maasai herders in Kenya turned to crop farming to make ends meet.

In West and Central Africa, owing to water shortage, 45% of farmers have experienced an increase in crop failure, 38% have seen a decrease of their farm income, 17% have observed a reduction in the availability of water for irrigation and 13% of families have seen at least one of their relatives forced to migrate. In most African countries, state capacity is weak and agricultural production is largely rain-fed. Thus, although Africa produces the least amount of greenhouse gases per capita, its people are likely to suffer the greatest consequences.

Climate change, conflict & institutional vulnerability in West Africa (1)
As climate change impacts the world’s physical landscape, it alters our geopolitical structure. For example, drought will increase competition for a diminishing amount of fertile land. Rising sea levels inevitably force coastal dwellers to move inland, further adding pressure to what is likely to be increasingly scarce land and water resources, and combined with other market forces, leads to price rises. These forces generate conflict between supply and demand resources, which may lead to political conflict as the population realizes that prices are rising faster than incomes. When social and political institutions are strong, they can address these conflicts through community leaders, ombudsmen, and other dispute resolution mechanisms. When these institutions are weak, their breakdown opens the door to violent conflict.

Few West African countries have built the strong institutions needed to resolve such disputes. The Fragile States Index (FSI) assesses states’ vulnerability to conflict or collapse, ranking all sovereign states with membership in the United Nations. The FSI ranks West African nations Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger, and Nigeria in the highest risk band for the 178 nations in their report, indicating their current vulnerability to conflict, rather than as a predictor of their collapse. However, as the FSI provides a surrogate measure of institutional weaknesses and the potential for climate change to generate conflict, the assessment that half of West African nations are highly vulnerable to internal conflict is cause for concern.

Tensions between sedentary farmers and itinerant pastoralists are unsurprising, due mainly to inherent conflicts in their use of the land and other scarce natural resources. Such tensions are present on every continent. Until recently, such conflicts were resolved relatively amicably within the communities involved. However, today’s economic, demographic and political situation is increasingly demanding, with lakes drying up, populations on the move, and violent extremist ideologies poisoning the traditionally accommodative politics of a number of West African countries.

Seeking pasture, pastoralists follow the seasons across the region. During the rainy season, many tend to settle in their primary locales in northern semi-arid parts of the Sahel sub-region. When rains are scarce, they move south for pasture and water, having made arrangements with farmers at specific locations governing where and when their livestock can graze and drink. Occasionally, violent conflicts emerge between members of the two groups. Historically, however, the relationship tends to be symbiotic. Farmers benefit from payments and livestock excrement to fertilize their crops, and pastoralists nurture their livestock on the land of the farmers. Pastoralists benefit from the crops of farmers for their own nutrition and survival, just as farmers do from the dairy products derived from livestock of the pastoralists.

As available fertile land diminishes, farmer-farmer and farmer-herder tensions rise. Lake Chad, once the world’s 6th largest freshwater lake, borders Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. By 2000, its shallow waters had shrunk to less than ten percent of their area in 1983, with devastating social and economic consequences for adjacent countries. Farmers, pastoralists, and fishermen lost livelihoods. Unsurprisingly, the Lake Chad region has experienced a great deal of conflict; with at least 2.4 million people forced to flee due to food shortages and violence.

With more people expected to flee, there is growing international interest in providing support. In March 2017, the United Nations (UN) Security Council identified climate change effects (drought, crop failure, etc.) and ecological changes as key factors responsible for the instability in the Lake Chad. The UN now plans to facilitate the raising of about $50 billion to regenerate the Lake Chad by transfering water from more abundant lakes in Central Africa. The key goal is to create more jobs in the region. In addition to such efforts, however, the other developmental and governance factors which exacerbate climate change effects in the region must also be addressed.

Article was first published by the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies at Nanyang Business School, Singapore. References are in the original article.

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