Climate change and violence in Africa: no time to lose

The AU is the first international body to tackle the problem head-on, and it needs global support.

Climate change poses serious security threats in Africa. Global organisations, regional communities and countries are increasingly recognising this fact, but that isn’t enough – urgent action is needed.

In March 2021, the African Union Peace and Security Council (AU PSC) issued an unprecedented communiqué dedicated to the effects of climate change on peace, security and stability in Africa. It was the first to specifically address the threats climate change poses to safety and call for specific actions, including establishing an AU Special Fund for Climate Change.

In April, United States President Joe Biden convened a Leaders’ Summit on Climate for 40 world leaders, including from Nigeria, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gabon and Kenya. The meeting included a theme on responding to the global security challenges posed by climate change.

In early May, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development included a climate change session. World leaders, researchers and practitioners talked about the importance of reducing climate security risks in peacekeeping and peacebuilding and factoring in a climate perspective when dealing with violent extremism.

Studies have linked a 0.5°C warming with a 10% to 20% increase in the risk of deadly conflict

There isn’t an easily defined direct causal link between climate change and conflict. Nonetheless, it does exacerbate security risks, including violent conflict. In this sense, climate change is a ‘risk multiplier’, ‘fragility amplifier’ or ‘conflict catalyst’. For Africa, where there is already a confluence of risks, it can trigger insecurity and violence.

Studies have linked a 0.5°C warming with a 10% to 20% increase in the risk of deadly conflict. As a threat multiplier, climate change exposes and exploits existing vulnerabilities. It worsens pre-existing tensions, weak governance and other socio-economic factors. This is evident in parts of the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa.

However, the same climate threats that will increase violence in one region may not do so in another. Zimbabwe, for example, is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change but isn’t at high risk for armed conflict.

Eighty percent of current United Nations (UN)-led peace operations are deployed in countries ranked most exposed to climate change. All of the largest African missions are in climate change hotspots, including South Sudan, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan and Somalia.

A recent SIPRI paper details how environmental changes in Mali have impacted violence and insecurity. Mali hosts the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission. Armed extremist groups, ethnic militia, government corruption, a military coup and inter-communal violence contribute to a deteriorating situation.

In Mali, violent extremist groups have more success recruiting during and after low rainfall periods

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most Malians rely on natural resources for their livelihoods, including farming, fishing, forestry and pastoralism that employ nearly 80% of the labour force. All these sectors rely on rainfall, which has become increasingly erratic.

Unreliable rainfall and land degradation have contributed to lower crop yield. With a 3% annual population growth, the result is escalating competition over increasingly scarce resources. This contributes to intra-communal conflict. With endemic disputes between farmers and herders in Mali and across the Sahel, the potential for escalation is high. At the same time, traditional conflict management systems have broken down.

Governance and the rule of law are already weak in Mali, and communities feel marginalised and economically excluded. Extremist groups exploit this by offering alternatives to justice and access to natural resources as recruitment tools. There is evidence that these extremists have more success recruiting during and following low rainfall periods.

Similar patterns have emerged in Somalia, where both a UN-mandated assistance mission with a climate adviser and an AU peacekeeping mission work to stabilise the country. Competition for political and economic power has converged with struggles to control land and water. Livestock and crops make up around 75% of the country’s GDP and 93% of total exports. Both have become increasingly fragile because of more frequent and severe droughts and floods.

Increased competition has exacerbated existing tensions. Extremist groups such as al-Shabaab use water and natural resources as control mechanisms. Al-Shabaab has been accused of breaking riverbanks, taxing charcoal and poisoning wells.

Internationally, pledges of financial support for climate mitigation and adaptation are falling short

Historically, violent conflict was the primary driver of forced displacement in Somalia and across the region. In 2020, however, 79% of displaced people in Somalia cited drought or flooding as their main cause for moving. Large-scale displacements have fuelled existing community and ethnic tensions.

Despite contributing very low carbon emissions, several regions in Africa are suffering some of the worst climate change impacts. Climate resilience strategies are crucial. However, weak governments and poor infrastructure combine to hamper such plans, meaning the effects of climate change hit extra hard.

In this void, humanitarian actors and peacekeeping missions can assist. However, climate threats also make their operations more difficult. Increasingly, extreme weather patterns affect their mobility and hinder their ability to respond.

There are some promising developments: the AU PSC and UN Security Council engagement, recent pronouncements by world leaders at the climate summit, and the appointment of a United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia climate adviser. These need to be matched with action. As attention increases, African states and institutions should use the opportunity to develop strategies that centre on local solutions.

The extent to which climate threats, conflict and displacement translate into violence depends on context, which means that localised responses are vital. When solutions are drawn up and implemented, those whose lives and livelihoods are being disrupted must be involved. The process should start with building local awareness and drawing on community leadership.

Internationally, pledges to generate financial support for climate mitigation and adaptation are falling short. Measures are needed to translate rhetoric into action.

Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant, Migration, ISS Pretoria and Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Head of Special Projects, ISS

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Related content