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  • Climate Change, Livelihoods, and Conflict in the Sahel
  • Ahmadou Aly Mbaye (bio)

In the Sahel, regional climatic trends show an overall rise in temperature, coupled with an erratic trend in rainfall. Moreover, the region faces a growing number of natural disasters, the frequency and intensity of which are expected to further rise in the near future.1 Desertification, drought, floods, and sea level rise, among others, are all affecting the availability of natural resources.2 In a context where natural resources are the main sources of livelihoods, environmental degradation significantly impacts people's resilience and makes them highly vulnerable.3 In parallel, the region faces serious political turmoil and radical Islamist threats, which have caused serious security challenges within and across national borders. Some literature draws a link between recent climatic trends and the occurrence and persistence of violent conflict in the Sahel. It mostly points to the natural tendency of people to recourse to migration and fighting over scarce resources as an adaptation strategy to climate change. In this paper, we argue that conflicts in the Sahel usually have many different intertwined drivers, among which governance, favorit ism, and ethnic and religious factors all come into play, with climate change increasingly acting as an amplifier that contributes to trigger violence. We further make the point that mitigating conflict in the Sahel can only come through a larger package of policies, of which adaptation to climate change should be an important component.

Climate Change Amplifies Conflict in the Sahel

The idea that climate change is positively associated with conflict has received substantial empirical support in the literature. Combining climate model projections of future temperature trends with the historical response of conflict to temperature in Africa, studies project a 54 percent increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030, or an additional 393,000 deaths. Similarly, they find that a 1°C increase in temperature leads to a 4.5 percent increase in civil war incidence in the same year and a 0.9 percent increase in the following year. Due to climate change, African staple crop yields can be reduced by 10–30 percent per °C of warming.4

While the importance of climate change in drying out livelihoods and explaining conflict should not be downplayed, alternatives also deserve significant attention. In particular, institutions and state capacity, proxied by the protection of property rights, rule of law, and the efficiency of the legal system, are found to be root causes of civil war. Country institutional improvement from the median value to the 75th percentile [End Page 12] is associated with a 36-percentage-point reduction in the incidence of civil war.5 Moreover, once institutions are included as an explanatory variable of civil war, income is found to have no statistical effect, either directly or indirectly. Rather, political instability, rough terrain—where rebels can hide easily—and large population size are the most correlated with violence.6 Furthermore, "the paradox of plenty," observed in the case of Kenya, emphasizes that rather than dryness, abundance of water generates conflict.7 According to Adano et al., "The wetter the season, the more people are likely to die in violent livestock raiding. In other words, more conflicts and killings take place in wet season times of relative abundance, and less in dry season times of relative scarcity, when people reconcile their differences and cooperate."8 By contrast, in periods of scarcity, good institutions can shape human interactions and avoidance of conflicts.9

Climate Change, Food Insecurity, and Instability in the Sahel

While the effect of climate change on overall violence is not easy to document, its effect on food security seems to be more discernible, especially in urban settings. Sea level rise, natural disasters, flooding, and drought are associated with food insecurity and threaten security, either directly or indirectly, through migration. The two major manifestations of climate change in the Sahel are through increased temperatures and rainfall variability.

Global warming has many potential economic and social effects in Africa and particularly in the Sahel, contrasting with the region's minimal contribution in global emissions of greenhouse gases. GDP exposure in some African countries is projected to reach nearly half of the continent's GDP...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2471-8831
Print ISSN
1526-0054
Pages
pp. 12-20
Launched on MUSE
2020-10-15
Open Access
No
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