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Climate Change and Crisis in the Sahel
Elizabeth Linsenmayer | Dec 5 2022

Africa’s almost negligible contribution to climate change – accounting for less than 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions – is contrasted by the outsized impact of rising temperatures and changing weather patterns across the continent. The western Sahel region, composed primarily of Francophone states, is becoming increasingly well-acquainted with the effects climate change can have on conflict. A string of violent coups in Burkina Faso, rampant proliferation of insurgent violence, and unstable military missions in Mali are all dire issues poised to deteriorate further under worsening climate change conditions. 

The Sahel’s future climate prospects are increasingly grim; estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) predict a temperature increase across the region between 35-40℉. Rising temperatures, combined with rising sea levels in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Guinea, are set to have disastrous impacts on crop yield, relationships between farmers, and resource distribution. The growing threat of water scarcity looms large for the Sahel, with estimates that the rate of per capita water availability will decline over 75% by 2080. Lake Chad, the region’s largest lake, has lost 90% of its volume since the 1960s. This drastic decline impacts the livelihoods of 30 million people across Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon who heavily rely on the lake for water supplies.

In landlocked Burkina Faso, growing water insecurity combined with rapid population growth in a geographically small country has already led to a number of conflicts. The proliferation of new neighborhoods to accommodate this growth is straining already-weak social service infrastructures and displacing a large segment of the population into overcrowded villages and cities. In a country rocked by a seemingly unbreakable cycle of violence marked by two coups in 2022 alone, the threat of a resource-deprived population is all the more alarming. 

Equitable access to natural resources is also paramount to the Sahel’s heavy reliance on agriculture. 60% of the population is employed in the agricultural sector, ultimately producing nearly 40% of the region’s overall GDP. In Mali, a complex system of pastoralists and agriculturalists organized amongst ethnic lines is caught in the crosshairs of changing weather patterns. Songhai and Bambara farmers have taken advantage of increasingly frequent dry seasons to expand rice farming operations onto land traditionally used by Muslim Fulani and Tuareg herders to grow burgu during the wet seasons. In the absence of a functioning, centralized Malian government, herders have turned to extremist groups to regain a sense of agency, ultimately exacerbating the conflicts with farmers by adding in a violent third party. The added dimensions of contentious ethnic ties, extremist ideologies, and lackluster government accountability highlights the multilayered nature of many conflicts in the region. While climate change is not the one and only factor contributing to the contention between farmers and herders, it is actively driving a wedge between the two. 

In addition to being the most prone to climate change’s effects, the Sahel is also Africa’s fastest growing region with population estimates for 2045 ranging between 370-415 million people. The aforementioned risk to natural resources scarcity is a threat all on its own, but factoring in a growing population increases the potential for rampant resource depletion and misallocation across communities. Furthermore, more people seeking more resources from a shrinking pool holds the potential to significantly exacerbate pre-existing conflict zones, such as the ongoing disputes between farmers and herders in Mali. 

The academic debate over whether the proliferation of conflict is caused by or correlated to climate change remains a contentious issue; many scholars argue that conflict is primarily driven by economic and political factors, while others are adamant that climate change should be treated as an integral factor in shaping conflicts. These academic arguments ultimately do not change the dire reality faced by the Sahel’s growing population. Irrespective of the exact relationship between climate change and conflict expansion, the outsized impact on natural resources in a region stricken with violence is sure to place millions under threat of humanitarian crises.

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