Environmental Migration and Conflict in West Africa

Environmental Migration and Conflict in West Africa

“In the coming decades, climate change will push an astounding number of people to flee their homes in West Africa to search for new places where food, health, and environmental security will be more accessible. Addressing this issue in the earliest phases will play a fundamental role in the coming decades’ policy outcome.’”

by Stefano de Blasi

Climate change represents one of the principal long-term challenges to international security, which is increasingly recognised as a threat multiplier within the current security landscape. Although there is no mono-causal correlation between climate change, migration, and conflicts, it would be dangerous to underestimate the impact of environmental changes on population displacement and regional conflicts. The effects of climate change are expected to pose a significant threat to West African developing countries due to their lack of wealth, strong institutions, and reliable infrastructures[i]. The absence of these assets, and the high-dependency of their population to natural resources, renders several Western African countries particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

West Africa has already been one of the most affected regions by climate change due to the aggravation of chronic problems such as water scarcity, and the increasing likelihood of rainfall shortage, desertification, and land degradation. The absence of solid infrastructures and technologies to adapt to the hostile effects of climate change may produce severe consequences for the regional socio-economic sphere causing insufficient food security, drastic water shortages, health-related risks, and eventually social unrest[ii]. Moreover, climate change has altered the frequency, intensity and duration of such threats[iii], producing further challenges to the resilience of West African countries.

The data collected by researchers in the field of environmental security offers a worrying picture of the consequences that climate change may produce in the region. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), average temperatures in West Africa are expected to rise as much as 3°C by 2050, potentially causing devasting effects to the security of the region. The resilience of this ecosystem will also be challenged by an estimated 10 percent reduction in annual rainfall by the same year[iv]. Given the region’s dependency on rainfed agriculture (it is estimated that this covers approximately 96 percent of total crop production[v]), the consequences of such an environmental shift may prove to be fatal in terms of food security and demographic growth. The combination of these environmental issues with one of the highest population growth rates in the world could in turn lead West Africa to food shortages, famines in drought years, and massive human displacements[vi].

Migration has always represented an important adaptive mechanism for people facing environmental changes. Internal urban and coastal migration remains the most common response to climate-driven issues. However, in West Africa these migrations constitute a serious challenge to large cities that aim to absorb and integrate large groups of people who were forced to flee their homes due to sudden natural disasters or long-term effects of climate change[vii]. The discourse is different when it comes to external migrations – i.e. migration flows directed to different countries. One of the major problems in this field concerns acquiring the refugee status for those forced to migrate due to unusual environmental shifts. Currently, no official international convention or definition concerning environmental refugees has been produced. Therefore, these refugees live in a normative limbo, incapable of obtaining recognition or protection abroad. Considering the growing threat the environment is posing to this region, this aspect represents a significant issue in the international normative framework.

Climate-induced migrations in West Africa could also damage the stability of hosting societies, particularly in the case of underdeveloped economies with scarce resources and political instability[viii]. Climate change in this case might exacerbate pre-existing socio-economic and ethnic tensions within the receiving area and it might trigger internal competitions over natural resources and workable lands. This is what is happening right now in the Lake Chad region for example. In the past 50 years this lake has shrunk by 90 percent due to changing environmental conditions, misuse and overuse, and massive population growth. These changes have exasperated disputes for resources and land in this region, which hosts more than 300 local ethnic groups as well as migrant workers[ix]. Thus far, these tensions have concerned mainly rural populations, but it will be fundamental to observe closely how this scenario develops in urban regions in order to prevent any major violent escalation.

In the coming decades, climate change will push an astounding number of people to flee their homes in West Africa to search for new places where food, health, and environmental security will be more accessible. Although offering an accurate estimate of the magnitude of the potential implications of this scenario is beyond our capacities at this moment, addressing this issue in the earliest phases will play a fundamental role in the coming decades’ policy outcome. Enhancing the adaptation and the resilience of West African countries to the adverse effects of climate change is fundamental to preventing forced massive displacement across, and even beyond, this region. The consequences of such a scenario could prove to be dramatic in terms of destabilising mass migrations and potential socio-economic conflicts.

[i]  Reuveny Rafael, 2007. Climate change-induced migration and violent conflict. Political Geography 26, pp. 656-673.
[ii]  Brown Oli et al., 2007. Climate Change as the ‘New Security Threat: Implications for Africa. International Affairs, 83:6. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4541915
[iii] Stapleton Opitz Sara et al., 2017. Climate change, Migration and Displacement. [online] Available at: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/11874.pdf
[iv] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Impact, adaptation, and Vulnerability.
[v] Serdeczny Olivia et al., 2016. Climate change impacts in Sub-Saharan Africa: from physical changes to their social ripercussions. Regional Environmental Change.
[vi] Warner Koko et al., 2009. In Search of a Shelter – Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement. [online] Available at: https://www.ciesin.columbia.edu/documents/clim-migr-report-june09_final.pdf
[vii] United Nations Environment Programme. 2011. Livelihood Security - Climate Change, Conflict and Migration in the Sahel. [online] Available at: https://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/UNEP_Sahel_EN.pdf
[viii] Raleigh Clionadh et al., 2008. Assessing the Impact of Climate Change on Migration and Conflict.[online] Available at: https://environmentalmigration.iom.int/assessing-impact-climate-change-migration-and-conflict
[ix] UNEP, 2001. Livelihood Security.

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