Climate Change and Conflict: The Implications for Sub-Saharan Africa

Posted by on Apr 23, 2012 in Earth SOS, Environmental Issues, Featured Slide, Human Rights, World Updates | Comments

Climate Change and Conflict: The Implications for Sub-Saharan Africa

By KYLE CLENDINNING  Published April 23, 2012

There is now widespread agreement that climate change will have a revolutionary impact on how populations interact with their environment. It has been projected that shifts in the earth’s climate may result in coastal erosion, declining precipitation and soil moisture, increased storm intensity and species migration. As the global ecosystem undergoes these changes, so too must its people. Yet climate change will not affect all people equally; the most dramatic effects will likely be experienced by the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa. Key concerns for the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa include threats to food security, drastic economic decline, inundation of coastal areas, and degradation of arable land and freshwater resources. While these nations are likely to face extreme hardships caused by climate change, they also lack the capacity required to mitigate or adapt to these changes as a result of their relative dependence on resources, higher rates of poverty and weaker political institutions. Due to these challenges, the effects of climate change could produce an increasingly unstable environment in which violent conflicts may emerge. It is unlikely that climate change will produce violent conflict in and of itself, but rather, it could serve as a “threat multiplier” whereby environmental degradation caused by climate change may exacerbate many of the underlining causes linked to violent conflict.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Resource Dependence and Climate Change

One of the primary reasons that the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa will bear the most negative consequences of climate change has to do with the general structure of their economies. It has been suggested that a third of Sub-Saharan Africa’s land area is permanently used for agriculture. Approximately 30% of GDP in the region is derived from agricultural production which employs approximately 58% (as high as 66% in certain regions) of their total labour force. European and North American agricultural sectors by contrast employ only 8.6% and 6% of their labour force respectively. Due to the proportion of GDP and workforce tied to the agricultural sector, it becomes clear that the livelihoods for many people in Sub-Saharan Africa are directly tied to environmental resources.

Given their relative dependence upon the environment, the effects of climate change will pose greater challenges for these nations. Projections show that the African continent is likely to warm this century with the largest temperature increases occurring in the drier sub-tropical regions. Rainfall patterns will shift throughout the region, potentially decreasing by up to 10% annually by 2050. This is particularly problematic given that 75% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture is rain-fed and the region already has one of the smallest amounts of arable land per capita in the world. This combination of rising temperatures and declining precipitation will ultimately reduce crop yields (causing serious ramifications for food security and economic livelihoods) and could further undermine the region’s water supply. As environmental resources decline due to climate change, so too will the livelihoods of those dependent upon them. Taken together, these challenges can increase the prospects for violent conflict.

Connecting the Dots: Climate Change as a “Threat Multiplier”

When one looks at the violent conflicts over oil in the Sudan, diamonds in Sierra Leone or coltan/gold/tin/tungsten in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they can see that control over resources can become a significant underlying cause of violent conflict. The world has certainly witnessed a number of conflicts over non-renewable resources such as these as they are highly valued due to their scarcity. Unlike non-renewable resources however, renewable resources such as cropland, forests and water supplies are replenished overtime naturally. When utilized prudently, these resources can sustain life indefinitely. It is clear however, that many of the renewable resources which sustain life in Sub-Saharan Africa will come under increasing threat as a direct consequence of climate change. As temperatures increase and rainfall decreases, the availability of cropland, forests and water supplies will decline. As local demand for these resources outstrips the available supply, scarcities will ensue which could lead to social breakdown and violence. Resource scarcities can lead to violence because they create cleavages between groups competing over access to, or control over, the scarce resource. If this competition yields an inequitable distribution of resources, aggrieved parties may turn to violence. Another scenario which could lead to violent conflict as a result of resource scarcities revolves around the issue of migration. When facing scarcities in their homelands, populations may seek new opportunities by migrating to a different region or country. This could increase the risk of violent conflict in the receiving region as they would experience increased competition between natives and migrants over resources.

Climate change may exacerbate another underlying cause of violent conflict when viewed in the context poverty. As discussed, a large proportion of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa are employed within the agricultural sector of the economy. With rising temperatures and reductions in rainfall, growing seasons and crop yields will likely diminish thereby reducing employment prospects in the sector. Coupled with food shortages and lack of water, it is likely that the rates of poverty will increase. The role that poverty plays in violent conflict can largely be seen as a motivating factor at the individual level. Studies have shown that as people face the risk of poverty or a lack of economic opportunities, the likelihood of them joining an armed struggle increases. The decision to do so can ultimately be viewed as rational given that an armed group may provide them with some level of social status or personal enrichment. As such, they can be preferable alternative to impoverishment.

Perhaps the most severe impact that climate change will have on violent conflict revolves around its impact on states and political institutions. It is ultimately the role of the state to promote human security by creating an environment where people can pursue valuable lives. As climate change alters the productive landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa, the state will be required to help its populations adapt to these changes. To this end, the state will have to act as a fair arbitrator or manager to ensure that competing groups receive equitable access to dwindling resources (such as water or arable lands) and provide some level of social assistance (health care, education, etc.) to those livelihoods which have been negatively impacted. Many nations in Sub-Saharan Africa already lack the capacity to provide these kinds of social goods. This capacity will be further eroded by climate change as these nations will likely witness a decrease in government revenues (due to the reduction in revenue generating environmental resources) and an increase in the cost of providing public infrastructure such as water, services such as health care, and disaster relief (due to increased demand). A number of studies have illustrated how nations which provide social goods such as health care and education experience a reduction in the risk of violence while conversely; internal wars are more frequent in nations facing revenue constraints. Thus at a time when the state will require greater capacity to help their societies adapt, they will be weakened; thereby increasing the risk of violence.

This combination of factors can create an environment in which violent conflicts thrive. Scarcities and declining returns from resources caused by climate change will frustrate the livelihoods of many. To aid these aggrieved people, the state will be required to manage and distribute scarce resources fairly and provide social assistance in order to maintain legitimacy amongst its populace. As climate change will undermine their capacity to do so, conflicts may emerge and the state will lack the capacity to manage them before they turn violent. These possible consequences demonstrate how climate change can be viewed as a “threat multiplier”. While the effects of climate change do not directly lead to violence, they may exacerbate many of the underlying causes of violent conflict. We must therefore not view climate change solely in the context of ecological disaster, but also as a threat to human security.

The Way Forward:

While all efforts must be made to reduce emissions causing climate change globally, it must be recognized that much of damage is already “locked in”. This means that if the world awoke tomorrow and collectively reduced their carbon footprints to zero; climate change will still occur. As a result, efforts must be made to help the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa prepare and adapt to the changing environment. Such strategies should include:

Improving Surveillance and Early Warning Systems

While we have gained considerable knowledge on the effects of climate change, there are gaps in our data at the regional level. Higher resolution climate change models that are capable of projecting regional-specific outcomes do exist but require additional investments for improvement. By understanding the effects of climate change at a regional level, we will be better equipped to identify potential “hot spots” where resource scarcities and conflict risks could emerge. Conflict resolution strategies could then be employed early to prevent these affected regions from spiraling into violence.

Improving Adaptation Strategies: Resource Management and Diversification

To avoid conflict, societies will have to adapt to their changing environments. In doing so, the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa may need the capacity to: diversify their economies away from agriculture, reform institutions of governance (such as introducing systems which promote co-management over scarce resources), changing current agricultural practices (such as crop selection or soil and water preservation techniques) and the development of social assistance programs.

The World Bank has suggested the annual bill for such efforts could be between $10 billion to $40 billion a year.  While the costs will be high, failing to act will be considerably higher. As violent conflicts become more frequent, the costs in terms of lost lives and livelihoods, destruction of infrastructure and weakening of the state combined with the costs of post-conflict peacekeeping would be astronomical. As such, investments in conflict prevention and adaptation strategies should be viewed as a cheaper alternative. However, given that the average resident of Sub-Saharan Africa produces less than a tonne of CO2 per year while the average North American produces 19.9 tonnes, it would be downright unethical to allow the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa to bear the brunt of these costs alone (given their negligible contribution to the problem). The costs of such efforts therefore, must be shared globally. This may prove challenging in our current “age of austerity” as many developed nations have begun slashing their foreign aid budgets (a ridiculous effort at reducing deficits given the miniscule portion which foreign aid represents in their budgets). As such, we as individuals must begin applying pressure to our respective governments and elected officials to reverse this trend. Failing to do so could prove disastrous.

 Resources and Further Reading:

  • Barnett, Jon & W. Neil Adger. “Climate change, human security and violent conflict” Political Geography 26 (2007): 639-655
  • Brown, Oli, Anne Hammill & Robert McLeman. “Climate change as the ‘new’ security threat: implications for Africa” International Affairs 83:6 (2007): 1141-1154.
  • Burke, Marshall B., Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, John A. Dykema & David B. Lobell. “Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa,” PNAS  106.49 (2009): 20670-20674.
  • Evans, Alex. “Resource Scarcity, Climate Change and the Risk of Violent Conflict,” Wold Development Report: Background Paper 2011.
  • Goodhand, Jonathan. “Violent Conflict, Poverty and Chronic Poverty”, Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Working Paper no. 6, May 2001.
  • Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. Environment, Scarcity, and Violence. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. “Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases” International Security 19.1 (1994): 5-40.
  • Reuveny, Rafael. “Climate change-induced migration and violent conflict” Political Geography 26 (2007): 656-673.
  • Smith, Dan & Janani Vivenkananda. “Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility: Understanding the Linkages, Shaping Effective Responses”, International Alert, 2009, London.
  • Thomas, David S.G. & Chasca Twyman. “Equity and justice in climate change adaptation amongst natural-resource-dependent societies” Global Environmental Change 15 (2005): 115-124.
  • UNEP. “From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment”, United Nations Environment Programme, 2009, Nairobi.
  • Wijeyaratne Surendrini. “Fragile Environment, Fragile State: What Role for Conflict-Sensitivity and Peace-Building?”, prepared for the CCIC Policy Roundtable Reclaiming the Commons: Promoting a North-South Agenda for Environmental Justice, January 14,2009, Canadian Council for International Co-operation, Ottawa.


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