macroafricaintel | Climate change & conflict in West Africa (4)

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Africa is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Climate change, in association with socio-economic factors, definitely leads to conflict, and considerable evidence points to causal relationships among the effects of climate change and violent conflict. Climate change causes resource scarcity, which spurs competition that ultimately feeds conflict. Studies reveal that the strength of the climate change-conflict links depends on several factors, including social and political contexts.

In the specific case of West Africa, solutions to conflict that focus on long-term issues such as slowing climate change miss the urgent need to manage emerging conflict before it leads to violence. Ideally, states will take action to mitigate the potential conflicts generated by climate change before these conflicts lead to violence. The relevant questions for policymakers are how and where should they intervene to best effect?

Current evidence suggests that global policy initiatives such as the Paris Agreement are unlikely to offset resource scarcity issues in the near term. Even those measures that nations agree to implement will take many years to make a substantial impact on current climatic trends. Also, few African nations currently have the institutional capacity needed to successfully respond to intense resource and political conflict at a national level.

Thus, I propose that African governments focus their efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change on proactive interventions to minimize the conflicts associated with resource competition. I suggest institutional interventions at the resource scarcity stage. Examples of these interventions range from efficient irrigation, water rationing, pasture management, resource rejuvenation, to public education and institution-building. They are discussed below.

Restore water bodies
Drying river and lake basins may be restorable. If the proposed Lake Chad inter-basin water transfer (IBT) project succeeds, it would help restore livelihoods in the region, which would in turn reduce potential conflict. However, review of other IBT projects suggests the social and environmental costs may be significant. If this is true, the Lake Chad IBT may have long-term and perhaps more serious implications for climate change and conflict.

Plant trees
Planting trees is a simple and cost-effective measure to rebuild capacity for CO2 absorption. According to the recent study by Bastin et al., planting trees on as much as almost a billion hectares of currently suitable land could absorb up to a quarter of carbon currently in the atmosphere. The study recommends a greater sense of urgency in this regard, however. This is because over time there would be less land suitable for afforestation efforts. For instance, the authors estimate about 223 million hectares of land for planting trees could be lost to climate change effects by 2050.

Build irrigation infrastructure for agriculture
African agriculture, which is largely rain-fed, is currently the least productive in the world. Studies estimate that improved irrigation could boost agricultural productivity on the continent by as much as 50%. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), only 4% of cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, compared to 37% for Asia. Thus, the livelihoods of most African farmers are subject to the elements. To move forward, African farmers must adopt modern agricultural methods. These would go beyond irrigation to include complementary measures such as cheaper fertilizer, better-yielding seeds, post-harvest storage and processing facilities, improved access to markets, and the training of and support for farmers.

Incentivize ranching and commercial grazing for livestock production
Ranching, a well-established alternative to nomadic pastoralism, is clearly a success in Ghana. It can be incentivized to be attractive to itinerant pastoralists. Grazing bans are ill-advised. We suggest the creation of enabling environments for commercial grazing instead. This would be privately managed pasture that herders can bring their cows to graze for a fee.

Increase use of alternative & renewable energy sources
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates renewable energy could constitute almost half of all new power generation capacity in sub-Saharan Africa by 2040. The case for alternative and renewable energy to replace fossil fuels in Africa is robust. Although some worry that commitments to reducing global warming would slow Africa’s economic development, the continent has a unique opportunity to develop sustainably without externalizing its carbon emission costs to the earth’s climate.

Increase climate change awareness
Africa has the opportunity not to join the current culprits in the developed world by emitting GHGs to the atmosphere. This will require increased awareness of climate change and its potential effects on the continent. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has many resources to aid governments in this regard.

Strengthen state capacity, democracy and good governance
In areas with strong institutional capacity for conflict resolution, disagreements between farmers and herders should be easy to resolve. Few African countries have built such institutions. This weakness, coupled with poor governance and politics riddled with corruption, allows conflicts generated by climate change to escalate into violence, as evidenced by clashes between sedentary farmers and itinerant pastoralists in countries bordering Lake Chad. It would likely take many years for most African countries to build the state capacity needed to manage the tensions triggered by the impacts of climate change. Still, the example of Ghana shows how state authorities were able to position themselves for effective mediation of conflicts between farmers and herders when they arose.

Final thoughts
Initiatives to proactively mitigate conflicts resulting from climate change must be context-flexible, as locational and situational factors determine the specific interventions that stakeholders will accept. In the case of farmer: herder conflict, ranching might be ideal and mutually agreeable in one context, while commercialized grazing might be preferred by the parties in other specific geographic, socioeconomic and political environments. Various near-term initiatives such as ranching may well be accompanied by long-term measures such as land restoration programmes to green increasingly arid grazing lands. Thus, near-term measures should be harmonized with long-term policy action that addresses root causes.

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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