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Why we need a climate security course-correction for stability in the Sahel

On 9 March 2021, Heads of State of the African Union (AU), lead by Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, met to discuss how climate change is a critical part of securing peace across the continent under the landmark “Silencing the Guns” initiative. In the same week, on 12 March, the Informal Expert Group of Members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) met to explore the role of the Security Council in addressing climate-related security risks in the Sahel, specifically examining how the UN and the AU could better cooperate on the matter.

The Sahel has been accepted as one of the regions where climate change is most likely to undermine security and trigger violent conflict. Whilst the links between climate change and conflict are neither direct nor inevitable, four pathways through which climate change could increase fragility in the Sahel stand out. Climate impacts exacerbate farmer-herder conflicts, increase tensions related to climate-induced migration, trigger disputes over water resources, and have severe impacts on governance and the proliferation of armed opposition groups.

Stability in a changing climate

At the same time, we have seen an increase in the number of military initiatives aimed at bringing peace and stability to the Sahel region. The plethora of multilateral forces on the ground include the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and the G5 Sahel force (JF-G5S) and AU-led mission for Mali and the Sahel (MISAHEL). Beside these, there is the French Operation Barkhane, as well as United States, German, Belgian, British and Italian soldiers, both within MINUSMA and in the framework of bilateral agreements with countries of the Sahel.

Despite this increase in stabilisation efforts, troop numbers and defence dollars spent in the region, progress towards stability has been questionable to say the least. The security situation is deteriorating, socio-economic inequalities and environmental degradation are increasing and cross-border risks such as terrorist group movements are on the rise. This is compounded by climate change impacts, such as climatic variability, climate-induced migration and water scarcity, which adversely affect the threats posed due to rising tensions between pastoralists and farmers, high youth unemployment rates, gender inequality, and food insecurity.

And yet peace operations in the region have yet to effectively address climate-related security risks. While climate change is referenced in the mandates of the AU mission for Mali and the Sahel, as well as in the UN missions to Mali and South Sudan, there is no mention of climate change in the mandates of the MNJTF or JF-G5S missions, nor the plethora of bilateral stabilisation efforts. Even where climate change is acknowledged in peace operation mandates, to date little to nothing has been done in practice to operationalize the language in the mandates to assess or address climate-related security risks.

Related Reading: CSEN Factsheet - The Sahel

Cover Factsheet Sahel


Words without action

The increasing number of high-level meetings at the AU and UN affirm the acceptance that climate change is a vital component of stability in the Sahel. And it is increasingly clear to those paying attention that to have any sustainable impact on peace, stabilisation efforts need to be more focused on addressing climate change-related security risks and inequality. But so far, these high-level words of support are not reaching stabilisation missions on the ground.

There is hope. Capacities exist and knowledge can be tapped. For example, the UN has a Climate Security Mechanism with readily available tools and approaches to assess climate security risks. The AU has a Continental Early Warning System with capacities for highly context specific risk analysis. There is much scope for enhanced operational responses through cross-learning and cooperation across both endeavours. There is also much to be gained from collaborating on climate-fragility risk assessments and sharing of information from relevant third parties such as think tanks. Finally, both the AU and the UN can learn from each other to better include climate-security within mediation processes and include climate-related security risks in the evaluation, analysis and assessment and identification of mission challenges, operations and mission management.

Climate change may not be the single biggest factor affecting the evolving prospects of the Sahel region, however it should be seen as a major obstacle to peace that can worsen existing conflicts and compound situations of fragility. Conflict and fragility in the region weaken countries’ ability to adapt to the impacts of climate change, potentially setting in motion a self-reinforcing conflict trap.

Climate course correction

There is an urgent need for a climate security course-correction for stabilisation efforts in the Sahel. Current research shows how security matters, poverty, exclusion, and the impacts of climate change must be dealt with holistically. Strengthened mandates for peace operations which explicitly include climate change risks are an important step towards what is needed. But mandates are only a part of it. Without the requisite incentives and resources, already stretched peace missions will struggle to take action. What is needed are investments in climate change risk analysis as part of civilian, conflict prevention and mediation efforts. Here the AU and the UN could enhance each other’s efforts by comparing notes and sharing expertise. Effectively integrating climate security risks into stabilisation and peace operations are a critical means to achieve the very urgent end of bringing stability to the Sahel. Without such a course correction, current stabilisation efforts are unlikely to weather the risks facing the region.