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Climate change amplifies the risks for violent conflicts in Africa

The potential for climate change to exacerbate violent conflict is manifest in Africa. Growing competition over natural resources will likely increase tensions on a continent that is experiencing some of the world’s most protracted conflicts. Development, peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts must integrate climate change into their plans. SEI Africa Centre Director Philip Osano examines this issue as part of “Currents 2022”, a series of SEI perspectives highlighting trends of 2022 and beyond.

Philip Osano / Published on 10 January 2022

In November 2021, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council issued a document that underscored the threat of climate change for the continent’s future peace and security with its communique on the need for a climate-security-development nexus for Africa. This communique underlined the importance of adopting a climate-sensitive planning dimension to peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction missions, and in development efforts to prevent any relapse to armed conflicts in fragile communities.

This document underscores that climate change is a threat multiplier for Africa. Climate change is leading to greater food and water insecurity, the loss of livelihoods, additional pressure on natural resources, growing water scarcity, and more climate-linked human displacements.

Climate change has begun to aggravate tensions and violent conflicts, and to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities.

Climate change is already manifest in Africa – as evidenced by the unprecedented rising waters in the Kenyan Rift Valley lakes, the worst invasion of locusts in 25 years in the Horn of Africa, and extreme drought in southern Africa. The World Meteorological Organization State of Climate Change in Africa Reports for 2019 and 2020 document the threats from rising temperatures and sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, and more extreme weather. Human health and safety, food and water security and socio-economic development are all affected.

Scholars debate the exact nature of the connection between conflicts, security and climate change, but the threats to political stability are evident. A 30-year review, from 1989 to 2019, reported  25 active state-based conflicts in Africa in 2019 – the highest number since 1946. Against this backdrop, emerging areas of concern in relation to climate and violent conflict include:

Food insecurity. In 2020, Africa remained the continent most affected by food crises. The 2021 Global Report on Food Crises noted three major, intertwined drivers of the acute food insecurity: conflict, weather extremes, and economic shocks, including those from the Covid-19 pandemic. Food insecurity can in turn trigger social tensions and violence, increasing the risk of new displacement. In its report on the future of food and agriculture, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization notes that conflicts, crises and natural disasters are increasing in number and intensity. Efforts to meet growing demands on agriculture with existing farming practices are likely to lead to more intense competition for natural resources, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and further deforestation and land degradation.

Crop farmer-herder conflicts. Farmer-herder conflicts of especially of violent nature have increased in the Sahelian belt and the Horn of Africa. Competition for natural resources such as water, pasture and land can trigger conflicts”, further worsened by socio-cultural, and political differences. For example, such resource-use conflicts have emerged in region surrounding Lake Chad. Once the sixth-largest lake in the world, Lake Chad has lost 90 percent of its water as a result of overuse, extended drought, and the impacts of climate change. Diminishing water resources and the decline in the lake’s ecosystem have severely impacted the health and economy of people in the region, and sparked resource-based conflicts, especially due to water scarcity.

Displacement and migration. The combination of political instability and disasters has contributed to an increase in the number of internally displaced people and refugees in Africa. An International Displacement Monitoring Center report estimates that about 40.5 million people were newly displaced in 2020, roughly 27% of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The resources to address the humanitarian crises from these displacements are often funds diverted from other potential and important uses – such as development, environmental management, and climate change adaptation.

The year 2022 is significant for Africa. The world’s attention turns to the next UN climate conference (COP27), which will be held on the continent, with Egypt as the host. The planning for this event takes place with the Covid-19 pandemic as not a backdrop, but an ongoing concern. The pandemic led African GDP to shrink by 2.1% in 2020, and, the lack of access to adequate vaccines means the share of the population that is vaccinated in Africa is the lowest of any continent.

The focus in 2022 must therefore be on recovery efforts that strengthen resilience and adaptation. Nature-based solutions and climate-resilient agriculture, for example, are identified as critical interventions by the African Union Green Recovery Action Plan 2021-2027. Such interventions should be at the core of effort to mobilize a common African vision to adapt to climate change – and to enhance the continent’s security.

Written by

Philip Osano
Philip Osano

Centre Director

SEI Africa

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