Hundreds of blue buildings in Djougop, Senegal, are increasingly being filled by families from the nearby coastal city of St. Louis. Most did not choose to make this move—rather, their displacement has been driven by the destruction of neighborhoods from increased sea levels. St. Louis’ low sea level and placement along the Senegal River have made its population one of the first to be heavily impacted by climate change, but it will not be the last.
In West Africa, low-lying coastal cities most susceptible to sea-level rise generate 56% of the region’s GDP and have a population growth double the global average. Further, decreased rainfall and desertification increasingly impact the livelihoods of millions living in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions. At the same time, extreme weather events like heatwaves, flooding, droughts, rainstorms, and cyclones are increasing in number and intensity. On whole, the unique impact of climate change on ecological systems in Africa could force as many as 86 million Africans to become internally displaced.
The link between climate change and security has been recognized by global leaders and international institutions the world over. Climate-change stresses existing causes of political instability, which, if unaddressed, can result in increasing instances of conflict and fuel existing conflicts. The vulnerabilities created by climate change increase various populations’ chances of predation by criminal organizations, militias, and extremist groups. Further, competition for diminishing resources—including access to water and arable land—can cause an upsurge in violence.
Climate-related security threats can already be seen in the southern Sahel, where desertification has been linked to an upsurge in violent altercations between farmers and pastoralists, predominately along ethnic group lines.
While climate-related security threats can be found globally, Africa’s robust conflict early warning systems make African regional institutions uniquely capable of taking preventative action against climate-driven conflict.
What are conflict Early Warning Systems (EWS)?
Conflict EWS expert Madhawa Palihapitiya stated, ‘most community-based violence can be prevented if the right information is delivered to the right stakeholders, at the right time, in the right format, enabling the stakeholders to take the right actions.’
Conflict EWS are grounded in this idea. They collect and analyze information, identify conflict risks, warn decision-makers, and provide proposals for addressing potential conflict.
These systems frequently differ in methods and structure. However, general best practices and characteristics include:
- The transparent sharing of validated and reliable information between all parts of the system.
- Use various quantitative and qualitative methods to collect information, including technology, field networks, and open-source resources.
- Track a broad range of potential drives of conflict attuned to local contexts.
- Are directly linked to decision-makers and response mechanisms.
Existing African EWS
Today, Africa has one of the most extensive and multi-dimensional EWS structures in the world.
In 2005, the African Union (AU) started developing its Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) as a core part of its Peace and Security Council.
The CEWS consists of two parts. The first is an observation monitoring unit (labelled “the Situation Room”) that oversees data collection and analysis, which has made great improvements since its construction. The second are regional observation monitoring teams. These are located within Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and are directly linked with the AU’s observation monitoring unit.
Each REC’s EWS uses different methods attuned to local contexts. Examples include:
- The South African Development Community (SADC)’s Regional Early Warning System (REWS)
- The Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS)’s Early Warning and Response Network (ECOWARN)
- Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)’s Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN)
These regional EWCs are linked either officially with state governments or with monitors located in various communal areas across the region. This continental, regional, national, and communal organizational structure allows the CEWs to be linked to information gathering at the local level.
The Necessity of Climate EWS
Climate specialists have consistently advocated for the necessity of developing climate early warning systems—notably, EWS were incorporated into one of the four goals created by COP26.
Climate EWS use technological tools– most notably Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping—to identify extreme weather events like flooding, fires, drought, and heatwaves and long-term negative environmental trends like desertification or sea-level rise. Analysts can use this information to make recommendations to policymakers on limiting climate-related threats to vulnerable populations.
Yet, the larger goals of climate EWS are not much different than how conflict EWS have traditionally been conceived. They use information gathering and analysis to advise leaders on appropriately responding to early threats, promoting long-term stability and sustainability among civil society.
Integrating Climate EWS into Existing Conflict EWS Structures
The nexus between conflict and climate change between climate change and the dynamics of conflict provides a clear opportunity for existing EWS.
By integrating climate early warning into existing conflict EWS infrastructure, African political entities can minimize the resources needed to monitor potential impacts of climate on human security effectively. Already, EWS monitor economic, political, and governance indicators that may undermine security—through the use of geospatial data and analysis, it is possible to add a set of indicators that monitors environments and climate change. This analysis can measure how climate change impacts environments and the economic, political, and cultural impacts this may have on local populations.
Although I argue for the merit of integrating climate EWS into current conflict EWS, debates can and should be held about viewing climate-change indicators purely through the lens of human security. Even if securitization of climate change is not the answer, current structures of conflict EWS found throughout Africa can act as a good model for how effective climate EWS can be constructed. Further, if climate EWS are constructed independently of conflict EWS, it will be essential that analysts in both systems communicate and share information with one another to ensure the relationship between conflict and climate is accounted for in providing policy suggestions.
A Lesson Beyond Africa
Although climate change impacts Africa’s geography and geopolitical context in a unique way, it is far from the only geopolitical area that will have its security impacted by climate change. The continent’s robust conflict EWS provides political actors in Africa an opportunity to prepare for the impending impacts that climate change will have on human security—an opportunity that policymakers throughout the globe should consider constructing within their own political organizations.