By Cristina Romero-Caballero Cuttell
Climate change is an ever-present issue on most state agendas and in the mission statements of most multinational corporations. However, measures taken in the fight against climate change are not yet sufficient to revert, stop, or minimise its devastating consequences, despite it being considered a critical matter for international security, and especially for human security. Furthermore, its destructive effects are already a reality in many corners of the world, ranging from melting icebergs in the Artic, to torrential rains and floods in Asia, hurricanes in Central America and severe droughts in the Sahel. So, it is up to this generation of civilians and politicians, companies, and international organisations, to decide whether to unite against climate change or to continue struggling with uncoordinated, vain attempts. It is this choice which will define the future of billions in this generation and those following; a decision that cannot be postponed any longer. Climate change is here, it has arrived, and it is not going anywhere. The Sahel Crisis is a confirmation of this.
The Sahel’s rapid social, political, economic and environmental deteriorations have dramatically worsened human security. As a consequence, calls for humanitarian aid across the region have sharply increased, reaching unparalleled levels. For instance, increasing violence in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in 2020 led to more than 1,000 violent incidents, while claiming more than 8, 000 lives and forcing millions to flee their homes. Although the Sahel has historically been plagued with severe humanitarian crises, the reality is that climate change is now aggravating matters further. According to the UN, 80% of the Sahel’s land is currently degraded, a by-product of the climate change-borne droughts and heavy rainfalls that have been assailing the region in recent years. This is exacerbating current social problems, as shortage of natural resources is preventing farmers from sowing and cultivating their crops, leading to confrontations between them and pastoralists as both are fighting for the scarce livelihoods and fertile land left in the area. Moreover, the rise in terrorism is further complicating the situation. Terrorists are seeking to extend their influence, exploiting the social and political vulnerabilities of a crumbling, porous and unguarded region. This is consequently creating no-go zones, preventing Sahelians from migrating to search for more fertile land. Therefore, it is clear that the adverse effects of climate change are acting as a threat multiplier, compounding current tensions and threats. This is preventing the stabilisation of the Sahel and thus, the delivery of a more adequate response to the humanitarian emergency that is currently unfolding in the region.
An additional challenge is the COVID-19 pandemic which has spread amongst the Sahel populous. As of 26th of March 2021, 449,540 cases and more than 6,000 deaths have already been recorded, although the numbers are probably higher due to the limited resources for documentation. COVID-19 has further hampered communities by forcing the closure of schools and health centres and reducing the movement of the economy. Travel restrictions have also impeded the arrival of much-needed humanitarian assistance, aggravating the already profound, multi-faceted crisis. Thus, 2020 saw more than 24 million Sahelians requiring life-saving aid to be able to confront such perilous circumstances. Despite the UNHCR scaling up its resources in the area, greater international aid and awareness remains necessary as the Sahel does not appears to be a matter of critical urgency on today’s world affairs agenda.
The Sahel’s current societal collapse is revealing a link between climate change, peace, and security. For instance, with droughts destabilizing the economic and political landscape of the region through the loss of commercial livelihoods, weak national governments have been exposed. These institutions have historically struggled to maintain a fair distribution of resources among the population. As a consequence, if better measures are not implemented, governments will likely find it ever-more difficult to manage them, due to global warming depleting such resources. Governmental mismanagement, coupled with recent climate shocks, are concurrently leading to an increase in hunger, extremism, and social unrest . Thus, climate change is significantly harming the human welfare of Sahelians owing to the increase in food insecurity, physical violence and psychological damage, as well as the destruction of essential infrastructure and the environment.
Although this may appear as a distant problem for those located outside the region, in reality, the Sahel Crisis is not confined to a distant land. It has transnational consequences which should be taken seriously. Climate change mitigation and environmental protection measures ought to be implemented as structural preconditions to confront the root causes of the insecurity in the Sahel and the rise of violence. If no action is taken, violence and insecurity will, sooner rather than later, spill-over into other regions of the world. Indeed, one of the most prominent effects of climate change is the mass migration of civilians to areas of greater safety. This phenomenon has been unfolding intra-regionally in the Sahel for years, but is one that worsened in 2020, eventually placing further pressure on countries within the Sahel itself.
Countries such as Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso are now at the epicentre of one of the world’s fastest growing displacement crises. Nearly 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 365,000 refugees are temporarily living in those countries, which themselves are suffering from the combination of drought, lack of resources and regional conflict, particularly jihadist terrorism. Burkina Faso is experiencing the greatest toll, as the number of IDPs doubled to over one million over the past year. This has occurred whilst Burkina Faso is among the poorest countries in the world and one of the most vulnerable to climate risks. The UN World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization have even warned that Burkina Faso is one of four “hotspot” countries where a deadly amalgamation of climate risks, conflict, economic decay, and the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the risk of famine among its citizens. Furthermore, the problem has not remained within the enclaves of the Sahel. Many Sahelians have embarked on arduous journeys towards safety, making this crisis an ever-more transnational phenomenon, as reflected by the increased arrival of migrants from North Africa into Europe in recent years. Migrants are escaping not only conflicts, but also the lack of resources owing to the impact of climate change, which has left them without basic necessities such as fertile land, drinkable water or safe infrastructures.
Thus, this crisis threatens to put further strain on the international community. The Sahel crisis is just a foretaste of the social destruction that climate change can have on our current social and world order. And this is not an isolated phenomenon, as experts foresee a similar prognosis for other nations and regions susceptible to climate change, such as Central America. Moreover, the ecologist Norman Myers has predicted that by the mid-to late century, there may be around 200 million environmental refugees around the globe.
Hence, concerted action to prevent these devastating predictions from materialising is necessary. Unfortunately, the convergence of the global pandemic and the growth of nationalism stymieing collective security and cooperation are hampering the prevention and mitigation of climate risks. These issues have contributed to the increased vulnerability of society, creating the perfect storm for further climate change-borne calamities to become part of the world’s day-to-day life, heightening human insecurity for all. Therefore, situations like the Sahel Crisis must be addressed because it is morally and ethically correct, as defended by Hugo Slim in his masterful book Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disasters. But, also because it is strategically beneficial and can be used as a learning experience to comprehend how to confront such situations and prepare for similar occurrences in the future.
This is vital since climate change is unfolding quicker than previously imagined, and thus nations and societies must become better prepared to confront it. Yet, despite the clear evidence of climate change and the supportive findings of numerous subject-matter experts, the measures taken by international organisations, states and citizens are still insufficient. This is reflected by the increased climate-induced events that have been assailing the world recently. In fact, the sentiment towards climate change seems to be an emulation of the attitude taken towards the outbreak of COVID-19: one mostly ruled by individualistic action instead of a collective one. Although, the COVAX scheme led by the WHO, CEPI and Gavi is proof of concerted action against this biological global threat, it is still finding itself in competition with individual countries who are sealing their own deals with pharmaceuticals, hampering the equitable worldwide rollout of vaccines. This has once again demonstrated the weakness of modern multilateralism and cooperation. Thus, a change of nations´ priorities towards less individualistic goals is needed to even have a chance at successfully confronting this transnational problem, and also the more long-lasting global threat of climate change.
Countries cannot solve climate change unilaterally; hence international cooperation is required. However, nations and corporations have their own interests, and many are short-sighted, giving priority to their short-term gains instead of the long-term well-being of the world. Climate change is an epitome of the Tragedy of the Commons, and thus, for cooperation to be somewhat successful, this nationalistic outlook needs to stop. Therefore, greater united action together with more long-term, climate-focused policies and environment-friendly commitments such as the European Green Deal are necessary. These changes will allow for a more successful fight against the effects of climate change, together with the prevention of future mass humanitarian catastrophes such as the one currently unfolding in the Sahel.
Cristina Romero-Caballero Cuttell is a part-time MA International Relations student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research interests are around the topics of Migration, Climate Change, Gender and Human Rights. She is currently a Spanish Red Cross volunteer in the Canary Islands helping with the management of the latest influx of migrants to the islands.