by Annabelle Green
In June 1989, a gathering of British, American, and Canadian bureaucrats in Wilton Park, England left little impression on history. At the conference, despite being titled ‘Sub-Saharan Africa: The Challenge of Population Growth, Desertification and Famine,’ only a handful of African representatives were present. Somalia did not feature significantly within the discussion, save for its involvement as one-sixth of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought and Development.
At a time when agriculture was the primary occupation of the Somali labour force – seventy-one per cent in 1975 – the country was vulnerable to the key issues discussed. Adversities they faced, such as droughts and subsequent famines, were only exacerbated by a growing population and a decrease in fertile land appropriate for cultivation, caused by processes such as desertification. Despite these issues being highlighted, few attempts were made to improve the situation. Those at the meeting could not know that these environmental factors, if left unchecked, would hold great international significance in the future. By neglecting efforts to tackle the issue of climate change in Somalia, experts unknowingly aided the rise of violent extremist group al-Shabaab, which would come to present new and dangerous problems of its own.
Today, the severity of climate change as a key transnational issue is increasingly recognised by countries around the world. The international effort to combat Australian bushfires, Greta Thunburg’s global school strikes campaign, and emerging climate-centric summits, demonstrate the ever-growing awareness of climate change as a pressing issue. Yet, the negative effects of climate change, such as those in Somalia, are by no means a novel development. According to research conducted by the Federal Republic of Somalia published in 2013, Somalia has experienced one or more extreme climate events per decade since 1960. Along with excessive heat and subsequent famines, such as those of 1991 and 2011, Somalia has yoyo-ed between nationwide floods and droughts. These erratic patterns of rainfall are a strong indicator of climate change.
A startling lack of consensus surrounding the method to tackle climate change in Somalia can be largely attributed to the limited data collected on the country’s climate. This lack has been inhibited primarily by domestic political tensions which resulted in the ongoing civil war. Subsequently, the country’s climate monitoring network collapsed, resulting in little data availability from 1990 onwards. Such a situation has made it difficult for accurate scientific analysis of weather patterns to be conducted. As a result, extreme weather and potential natural disasters are difficult to predict, based on the lack of records from previous years. This uncertainty adds to the lack of security in Somalia, as leaders do not have sufficient resources to deal with the aftermath of environmental crises, let alone prepare for them.
The impacts of climate change discussed so far, combined with other factors including desertification and above-average birth rates (compared to the Sub-Saharan average), exacerbate an already weak economy. The climate and economy are intrinsically linked. A key example of this is that land scarcity, caused by increased population levels and decreased fertility, is having an adverse effect on employment levels and food shortages. High youth unemployment contributes to further human insecurity; causing a small number, and only those that can afford it, to migrate to Southern African countries. A large number of countries also do not accept Somali identification documents, meaning many cannot legally leave the country. Consequently, this had left the demographic more vulnerable to recruitment campaigns of al-Shabaab.
While the relationship between human insecurity and the likelihood of joining an extremist group is not linear, there is a strong correlation between both. Research suggests that those who face uncertainty are more likely to be attracted to extremist groups because they offer a clear vision for the future. al-Shabaab provides members and their families the security most of the country is lacking. In return, it commands an intense commitment from its followers to comply with its ideology. Moreover, militants have been known to divert river water to commercial farmers who have supported them financially, whilst others experience shortages. The importance of human security to this issue has been acknowledged: before 1994, policies surrounding the improvement of conditions in countries such as Somalia were focused on national security. However, following a UN report produced in 1994, there was a shift to emphasis on human security. While not conclusive, this shift to a human security focus in Somalia demonstrates the impact that poor socio-economic conditions, exacerbated by climate extremities, have on wider political and security issues.
Critically, it seems that al-Shabaab is not only impacted by, but contributing to, the negative effects of climate change. A key example of this is al-Shabaab’s deforestation endeavours, which supported its charcoal trade until late 2019. For this reason, the United Nations Security Council imposed an embargo on Somali charcoal trade in 2012. However, before this legislation was implemented, nearly two-thirds of forests in southern Somalia were destroyed to ship charcoal to the Persian Gulf. These shipments went through the port of Kismayo, which was only recaptured from the militant group in 2012. Revenues from Kismayo and two other ports run by al-Shabaab were estimated to have earned the group between $35-50 million a year, according to a UN report. The removal of these trees from the Somali ecosystem has led to a deficit in nutrients and a subsequent decrease in fertile ground. This has subsequently worsened the impacts of extreme climate change that are ongoing in the East-African country, escalating the scale of floods and famines.
A key concern is that al-Shabaab has recognised that a level of environmental insecurity is in its best interests to strengthen its power. This is supported by evidence suggesting the terrorist organisation exploited the Somali famine of 2011. It forcibly limited movement when residents tried to flee areas of the country most severely impacted by the food shortages. The group consistently blocked support from NGOs, suggesting it would prefer a starving population than a dilution of power. Its own feeble attempts to manage the situation, such as a Drought Committee founded in 2010, have made little progress. The country has continued to experience droughts almost annually in the last five years. Therefore there is a strong argument to suggest that despite some attempts to act as a social regulator, there is little motivation for Al Shabaab to facilitate improvement.
In conclusion, al-Shabaab clearly benefited from the impacts of climate change in Somalia. The loss of fertile land has led to an economically vulnerable population; which the terrorist organisation has fuelled through deforestation efforts and promoting competition for scarce resources (by limiting in-migration). With few opportunities, a consequently disillusioned youth have turned to extremism for some form of security, however tenuous. There is little motivation for al-Shabaab to improve conditions, demonstrated by its refusal to grant access to NGOs and prevention of out-migration in famine stricken areas. The meagre attempts it has made to improve conditions, such as its Drought Committee, appear superficial and have achieved limited results. Through such exploitation of the impacts of climate change, al-Shabaab in Somalia sustains already rife human insecurity, thus strengthening its own power.
Annabelle Green is currently completing an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London. She hopes to pursue a career in policy surrounding extremist offenders and in her spare time volunteers as a researcher for the charity Action on Armed Violence. She can be found on LinkedIn.