Climate change: a new driver of insecurity in Africa?

By Bastien Alex, Searcher, IRIS

Thanks to scientific progress, we are now able to map out climate forecasts in Africa for years ahead. Although the full picture is still a bit hazy, the pattern is very clear and mostly indicates negative changes between now and 2100: the temperature will rise above the global average (+3 to 6°C); rainfall will drop in the north, south and the west, but increase in the east; interannual and interdecadal variations will also increase significantly, making it more difficult to determine long-range forecasts; sea levels will rise, particularly from Mauritania to the Gulf of Guinea; and extreme weather events, such as torrential rain, are expected to become more frequent in the Sahel region. These changes are modest according to the optimistic model, in which the rise in temperature is limited to 2°C by 2100. In the more pessimistic model, however, this evolution is expected to ramp up significantly by as early as 2050. In Africa, such changes stir up conflict tensions primarily rooted in a shortage of available natural resources.

Although environmental changes are by no means the only factors driving insecurity, they exacerbate several risks which, despite being well-known, are far from resolved. One such risk is food insecurity. Despite a booming service industry in recent decades, African populations still primarily rely on agriculture, fishing and livestock. Of course, these sectors depend on climate more than any other. Variations in precipitation patterns, without adaptive measures, will negatively impact agricultural yields (millet, corn, wheat, sorghum) for crops heavily dependent on rainfall[1]. Cross-referenced with demographic data, which predict a substantial population increase, these shifts will intensify mass exoduses from rural areas to already densely‑packed megacities, prompting a return to Malthusian explanations for conflicts over resources. What is more, simultaneous crop shortages in the world’s major production basins could cause a spike in profiteering on international markets as well as food riots.

Resource scarcity could also result in land disputes between herders and farmers, which could become particularly intense in the Sahel. If rainfall is insufficient or improperly distributed over time, herders will continue to move their livestock further south to graze. In the absence of effective alert systems and concerted efforts to manage land resources, clashes between farmers are likely to escalate, not to mention the fact that such confrontations have become more lethal due to an increasing presence of arms in the region. Public authorities should confront the problem head on, given that they bear the brunt of the responsibility due to their inaction or the implementation of inadequate policies guided more by partisan logic than by risk prevention or the protection of their populations[2].

Resource management is quite clearly a regional issue, especially where it concerns trans‑border basins that feed states’ water supply. The most iconic case study for this scenario is the sharing of the waters of the Nile River between upstream and downstream countries. Egypt, relying on the river for 95% of its water supply, is nervously observing the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River. Following moments of serious tensions, the two countries, in a display of good faith, signed an agreement in March 2015 granting Ethiopia the green light for the dam’s construction so long as there is no interruption to Egypt’s water supply. The dam will begin filling its reservoir in 2018, the first true measure of its potential impact on the river’s flow downstream. Some studies[3] indicate worrisome results—for example, an increase of up to 50% in interannual waterflow variability—and the situation could very well escalate if project phases are not managed properly.

From a more long-term perspective, land degradation could create meagre conditions in terms of sustaining populations, provoking an upsurge in criminal or terrorist group activities. Terrorist groups are already taking advantage of the sense of abandonment by local authorities and the lack of economic opportunities, which leave populations vulnerable. Without adequate policies, the effects of climate change will most certainly fan the flames already sweeping across the Lake Chad region, a breeding ground of hardship on which Boko Haram is currently thriving due to the counterproductive restrictive measures in place[4].

Although these challenges are somewhat familiar, the effects of climate change will only serve to amplify their devastating consequences. This conclusion has sparked a heated debate within the research community, with quantitativists in one corner and qualitativists in the other. The former have declared a causal relationship between climate change and violence based on statistical meta-analyses, while the latter have criticized their colleagues’ approach, arguing that such methodologies diverge from empirical observations established in humanities research. The tense dialogue between the two camps has generated confusion regarding the connection between climate and security, with quantitativists fearing an under-estimation of the impacts of climate factors. Their counterparts argue that these factors have been over-estimated, meaning politicians could potentially wash their hands of certain conflict outbreaks, notably the wars in Darfur and Syria.

We must look beyond the position of climate change in the hierarchy of national or international security threats and examine its potential for contributing to any mounting instability. We must also gain a greater understanding of the role climate change plays among the variety of factors involved in already complex conflict or migratory crises. We must keep in mind that any attempt to isolate a specific factor would be a grave error. Rather, a holistic approach is essential for addressing the causes of these conflicts, and requires that we consider every angle through the contribution of all development and security actors.


[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food and Agriculture, 2016.

[2] Benjaminsen et al., “Does climate change drive land-use conflicts in the Sahel?”, Journal of Peace Research, 2012, pp. 49-97.

[3] Mohamed S. Siam & Elfatih A. B. Eltahir, “Climate change enhances interannual variability of the Nile River flow”, Nature Climate Change 7, 2017, pp. 350-354.

[4] International Crisis Group, Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency, Africa Report No. 245, 27 February 2017.

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Bastien Alex is a researcher at IRIS, in charge of the Climate, Energy and Security program.

He is mainly interested in the geopolitical and security impacts of climate change and global energy issues. Since November 2016, he co-directs with François Gemenne the geopolitical observatory of climate change issues in terms of security and defense, a project funded by the Ministry of Defense.
In The Strategic Year, the geopolitical yearbook of IRIS, he has written the chapter "Energy and environment" since 2013. At IRIS Sup ', he is head of the first year International Relations Diploma.
Holder of a master's degree in geography specializing in emerging and developing countries obtained at the University Denis Diderot (Paris VII), Bastien Alex is also a graduate of the University Paris VIII where he followed the professional curriculum European and international studies.


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