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Climate change is compounding the challenges created by extremist insurgencies in the Sahel

Herders in Eritrean Sahel region

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Africa is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of its geography. In the Sahel, the region that spans across Africa, lying just below the Sahara Desert, temperatures are on the rise, droughts are increasing, and rainfall patterns are becoming less predictable all because of climate change.

As global warming progresses, the Sahel region is anticipated to be particularly affected, with temperatures expected to rise about 1.5 times faster than the global average. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is highly likely that by the middle of this century, the Sahel will experience average temperatures exceeding 35°C.

A peculiar victim of this forecast – Lake Chad (shared by Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger) has already experienced a remarkable reduction in its total surface area. The lake shrunk from 25,000 km2 in the 1960s to 1,350 km2 in the 2000s and remained stable since. Consequently, the impact of the changing climate has resulted in a decline in fish production, loss of biodiversity, and subsequent deterioration of people’s livelihoods.

Climate change is undermining the economic opportunities available to young men in this region of Africa. This makes them more vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremist groups like Boko Haram, a violent but diffuse Islamist sect whose Arabic name Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati walJihad  translates as People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.

Asides from the Boko Haram sect, deadly communal clashes among herdsmen and farmers and inter-ethnic clashes are also being experienced alongside emerging armed groups who are actively recruiting young individuals from impoverished rural communities.

This pattern reflects a broader discovery by the United Nations Development Programme that the primary motivation for individuals joining extremist groups across Africa is the opportunity for employment, rather than religious ideology.

Chad, a landlocked nation of more than 17 million people, is ranked as the third-most vulnerable to climate change. It, along with 20 other countries across the globe, is already experiencing armed conflicts due to the effects of the changing climate.

Governments in the Sahel region cannot continue their current ineffective and disjointed approach to insecurity viewed as a siloed militarised concern. Resolving this crisis of insecurity demands a united front, innovative thinking, and international cooperation, which have been lacking until now.

It is also crucial for these governments to address the negative impacts of the changing climate before it exacerbates the wider security challenges. Failure to do so puts the region at risk of losing its economic capital and turning it into a haven for insurgent groups and banditry dominated by communal clashes.

At present, the actions taken by African leaders to address the climate crisis are disheartening. The recent submissions of the Nationally Determined Contributions by African governments, reveal that even though droughts and floods are the primary concerns, only 4 out of 52 African nations possess advanced capabilities for providing end-to-end drought forecasting or warning services. This lack of action or slow progress is deeply concerning.

There are reports indicating that almost 60 percent of the African population lacks access to early warning systems for dealing with extreme weather events and the effects of climate change. This inadequate coverage is partly due to the ineffective functioning of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services across the continent.

Multiple barriers have hindered African weather services from effectively monitoring and reporting real crises. These obstacles include a lack of skilled personnel, insufficient observation networks in numerous countries, inadequate telecommunication infrastructure for data exchange, limited mechanisms for engaging with users, incomplete understanding of current and future weather patterns, climate changes, and water-related consequences. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on national economies.

Although African countries have only contributed 4 per cent of global emissions, it is important to recognise the challenges that they face in addressing climate change. These include political instability, widespread poverty, and inadequate infrastructure, which can make it challenging to effectively implement climate change policies and adaptation measures.

Most of the makeshift villages on Lake Chad’s sandy shores, clusters of shelters constructed with reeds and blankets, have hundreds of families displaced by Islamist insurgents. Many inhabitants here think the future of the Sahel region looks quite bleak. The changing climate means there will be fewer economic resources to split among a growing population.

The interlinked challenges of climate change and extremist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel region demands urgent attention from governments, international organisations, and the global community. The environmental degradation caused by climate change not only worsens existing vulnerabilities but also creates new ones. It undermines livelihoods, fuels economic insecurity, and provides a breeding ground for extremist ideologies. To effectively address these compound challenges, comprehensive strategies are required that encompass climate change mitigation, adaptation, sustainable development, and peacebuilding efforts.