A Conflict Prevention Agenda Should Inform Climate Change Actions in Africa

A Conflict Prevention Agenda Should Inform Climate Change Actions in Africa


In Africa, climate change and population expansion are increasing fragilities and vulnerabilities—including contributing to conflict dynamics—for many people who directly depend on nature. To cope with how their environment can no longer supply livelihood needs, people are migrating in search of security or economic stability. These factors interact with one another in ways that underline the need for inclusive conflict mitigation considerations in climate change action.

Climate change, natural resources, and land use

The effects of climate change will be more severe and consequential in some locations than in others. The Paris Agreement and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that developing countries and small island developing states—both types of which are found in Africa—will potentially face the most significant effects of expected climate variability. Africa will face desertification and reduction of arable land as a result of climate change, placing severe strain on Africans’ ability to secure their livelihood systems and increasing human vulnerabilities.

Land use is critical to the agricultural sector in Africa, which employs over half of the continent’s labor force. A majority of the land use is for smallholder production. In 2020, Mr. Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Director of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification outlined how land ownership and land use are critical to sustainable and inclusive solutions. Many communities in Africa directly depend on the environment for daily sustenance and play important roles in management of land and natural resources. Availability, access, and use of natural resources may be severely constrained by the widespread, long-lasting, and adverse impacts of climate change on production systems, increasing the risk of violence and conflicts. With desertification and drought increasing in severity, access to pastures for livestock is impacted. Unreliable rainfall and poor pasture performance have the potential of further fueling tension including between farmers and herders in Africa’s Sahara belt.

Population growth, increasing migration, and urbanization are fueling tensions

Global population is projected to rise to 9.7 billion people in the next three decades. The population growth rate in Africa is particularly high. In fact, by 2050, one quarter of the world’s population will be in Africa. A larger population and a rapidly warming planet may create complex relationships that could fuel tensions between communities and between governments.

With land-based livelihood systems affected by climate change, larger segments of the population will have to move internally and across international borders. Pressure on the environment may increase to the point that people are pressured to migrate to secure their livelihoods, such as in the Sahel among pastoralist communities. Movement of pastoralists across the Sahel has been known to exacerbate farmer-herder clashes.

Other forms of fragility may accelerate migration. In Nigeria, the population is estimated to grow to 400 million by 2050. In the seasonal agrarian region of Northeast Nigeria, approximately 1.92 million people are internally displaceddue to the ongoing insurgency-driven conflict. Both those who are internally displaced and their host populations already lack sustainable access to land and agricultural productive systems.

In addition to population growth and migration, population changes are driving rapid urbanization. Urbanization is likely to have major implications on changing access to water resources, which also affects food security, sanitation, and healthcare. Alongside Asia, Africa is predicted to have one of the largest urban populations by 2050. This will increase pressure on public service delivery and the environment, further straining governance systems, as urban jobs become scarce and populations may perceive elected officials and public services in general to be unable to implement development priorities.

Transnational spill-over effects

Tensions such as those linked to herder and farmer interactions often have a spill-over effect, as herders traverse between geopolitical zones in-country and beyond national boundaries. Tensions may digress to conflicts as a result of changes in agricultural land, pasture scarcity, or climate change.

The situation around the Lake Chad Basin demonstrates the interconnectivity between climate change, migration, and terrorism in the context of a transboundary water resource. The conflict in the Lake Chad Basin has driven internal and international displacement. The displacement has increased the scale of community vulnerability, created challenges to safety, fostered recruitment into armed groups, and further built environmental pressure. Similarly, the Nile Basin is increasingly becoming a center of interstate tensions, as governments seek to balance national agendas in the face of changing population dynamics and pressures of climate variability.

A conflict prevention agenda should permeate climate change actions

Against this background, the African Union has been implementing a continental intervention under the flagship Africa Great Green Wall Initiative. It seeks to catalyze important peace dividends and revitalize the ecosystem of over 10 African countries lying at the southern tip of the Sahara Desert. With the Sahel facing growing populations and conflict-driven displacements, this ambitious project could contribute to decelerating the advances of desertification while offering community safeguards against vulnerability and fragility.

A rejuvenated ecosystem is aligned with achieving land degradation neutrality objectives for sustainable development, which could help mitigate the challenges with climate changes and offer alternatives to migration or urbanization. More livelihood options for the population are expected to rebuild hope and reduce community vulnerability. A rejuvenated ecosystem can support more options for production and self-sustenance of the communities, which could catalyze the return of displaced populations to their ancestral communities or at least stem future migration.

While ecosystem revitalization efforts are critically needed, because of the implications on peace and security, we must go further in addressing these overlapping trends of climate and population changes. We must place a strong conflict prevention agenda in dialogue around climate change on national and regional levels. We must promote multi-layered approaches that incorporate an understanding of population growth, migration, and urbanization into climate change action in Africa. Leaders should likewise incorporate conflict prevention agendas into national and regional policies on climate change. Collaboration with civil society, social movements, and scientific communities also add valuable and context-specific knowledge of natural resource conflicts in the face of scarcity, climate change, and an increasing global population.

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