ECC Platform Library

 

As the Sahel becomes Sahara

26 October, 2017
Fred Carver, United Nations Association – UK

What happens when habitable land is lost? What can be done to alleviate the consequences? Fred Carver, Head of Policy at UNA-UK, speaks of droughts, desertification and soil loss in the Sahara and Sahel, and how it relates to peacekeeping operations.

The UN deploys peacekeepers to 15 locations around the world. Eight of those missions, including the five largest ones, exist in a belt across northern sub-Saharan Africa: in Western Sahara, in Liberia, in Mali, in the Central African Republic (CAR), in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Darfur, in Abyei and in South Sudan.

Collectively these missions represent over 80 per cent of the UN’s budget and personnel for peacekeeping and, as a consequence, the lion’s share of the UN’s overall investment in peace and security Why? What makes this particular crescent of the world so particularly in need of the UN’s resources and attention?

There are, of course, a multitude of reasons in each case and in no single instance was climate change the primary cause. However, it is certainly a contributory factor common to every single situation.

In recent years drought, desertification and soil loss have seen the Sahara creep south into the Sahel, and the Sahel in turn creep south into the Sudanian Savanna. Scarcity has followed, exacerbating existing power imbalances and providing an incentive to act upon longstanding grievances, as inequality shifts from being a matter of justice to one of future security, and potentially one of existence. States’ confidence in economic growth and stability falters, and they seek out the plunder and insider unity that conflict brings.

Meanwhile apocalyptic cults (in Congo and Mali) and secessionist groups (in CAR and the Sudans) alike become more appealing, as the disincentives to instability become less readily apparent. Young men (and increasingly women too) with less to lose and less to farm see fewer reasons not to take up arms. Much as Bambang Susantono has argued in his article on Asia, in northern sub-Saharan Africa global warming hasn’t yet directly caused wars, but it has provided a more hospitable climate for them.

It is a phenomenon that could well creep yet further south. Northern Nigeria and the greater Lake Chad basin, Eritrea and Kenya have all demonstrated the existence of risk factors identified in the UN’s framework of analysis for atrocity crimes. It seems likely therefore that the stresses on the UN’s peace and security apparatus are only going to increase, particularly in this region. Yet at the same time powerful forces, led by but not limited to the United States, are keen to reduce the size, scope and, notably, costs associated with UN peacekeeping.

Peacebuilding initiatives
Thus far the Secretary-General has been looking for the solution ‘upstream’. By investing in mediation and pre-emptive peacebuilding initiatives, such as enhanced and strengthened political missions, he is hoping to reduce the need for future expensive peacekeeping missions. This logic is sound, and were the situation static such an approach would doubtless be effective. But as the Sahel turns into the Sahara he may find these efforts going against a tide of sand.

Additionally, mediation and political missions are not a like-for-like replacement to peacekeeping. The approaches serve subtly different purposes. Political missions may be able to substitute for peacekeeping when it comes to preventing a return to war, but that is increasingly a secondary purpose of modern missions.

Lessons learned
When it comes to ‘peacebuilding’ – the reconstruction of sustainable mechanisms and infrastructure for a long-term reduction in violence – and the prevention of atrocities, there is no obvious substitute for UN peacekeeping missions.

The record of UN peacekeepers on both fronts is mixed but improving. A recent study by the Rand Corporation, The UN’s Role in Nation-Building, found that UN peacekeepers outperform unilateral and/or military interventions when it comes to state-building.

As for preventing atrocities, peacekeeping has learned the lessons of Rwanda and Srebrenica rather better than its political masters. Modern missions have the mandate and resources those missions lacked. What they don’t always have is a Security Council with the foresight to deploy them ahead of the outbreak of violence.

Granted, the record is far from flawless. Too often, Member States fail to provide the UN with sufficiently trained and equipped troops. The UN internal investigation into violence in Juba in 2016 found that a force of some 19,000 peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians from atrocity crimes that took place just one mile from their base, yet a small handful of private security contractors were.

A few hundred willing and capable troops could perform a more useful function than many thousands of peacekeepers who lack the skills or motivation, and would also be a good deal cheaper. However, elite troops with the skillset required to perform this role are in short supply. Many hail from nations who have not been enthusiastic about volunteering them for UN duty.

Nevertheless, UN peacekeepers have, in all probability, prevented genocide in CAR and Mali, and significantly reduced the number and nature of atrocity crimes in many other countries. Few missions have come in for as much criticism as UNAMID – the joint African Union and UN mission to Darfur – and yet even in Darfur the value of the mission is clear. As a teacher in North Darfur told Waging Peace in a report UNA-UK co-authored: “The bottom line is that the force can still manage to save some lives and protect some of the population from rape and torture, as well as report atrocities.” Another Darfuri, in conversation with the International Refugee Rights Initiative, was even more succinct and gave them the title for their report: “No one on the Earth cares if we survive except God and sometimes UNAMID.”

Peacekeeping should therefore continue to play a role in the region for some time to come, and we would do well to maintain a sense of perspective about the cost. Around $7 billion a year may seem like a lot, but it represents just 0.5 per cent of total military spending globally. It pales into insignificance when compared to the other costs of what broadly should be considered climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Smoothing the transition?
But is peacekeeping a tool for adaptation? Partly it depends on what we need to adapt to. If the Paris Agreement is successful then temperatures will rise by about 2°C over the next 80 years and then hold steady. In the short term that would see desertification continue and increase, and both the Sahara and Sahel move southwards.

In the long term there is no consensus: the situation could stabilise with new southern boundaries; or feedback effects could see the region rendered a largely uninhabitable extreme desert; or warming temperatures could see a reversal of the monsoon cycle and the region actually becoming more fertile. If warming cannot be held to 2°C then the region is much less likely to remain habitable.

The UN therefore needs to support the region to go through – at the very least – decades of relative resource scarcity and a permanent shift in geographic resource allocation (which will lead to political, social and cultural tensions, which are likely to spill over into multiple conflicts) and – at most – the organised evacuation of most of the region (and other parts of the planet to boot). While the latter would require a completely new global politics of migration and asylum, and Herculean work by the already overstretched UN High Commission for Refugees, peacekeeping could provide part of the answer to smoothing out the bumps and tensions of a less radical transition.

This cannot happen in isolation. Conceptually, peacekeepers don’t end conflict. They impose order but, as Stathis Kalyvas has argued, order is not the opposite of violence but simply a form of formalised violence. Thus, peacekeeping provides a mechanism for de-escalation by formalising conflict and so legitimises and cements post-conflict power relations. But if those power relations remain exploitative, unjust and unequal then the ingredients for future conflict remain. Peacekeeping is not peacemaking, and while it can smooth the transition that climate change will bring it will not, by itself, provide a just post-warming settlement for the region.

An (expensive) ongoing peacekeeping presence or investment in robust institutions may keep the lid on hostilities for a while. But as the Sahara grows ever larger, pressure will build and tensions will climb ever higher, eventually reaching bursting point along familiar fault lines. This is unless a process of development and, crucially, a more equitable politics enables the creation of a sustainable regional society better able to adapt to a warmer, dustier, future.

Peacekeeping can buy time, and curb the worst excesses of human behaviour. But, in the long term, if desertification is not brought to a halt, and if existing resources are not allocated more equitably, then the Sahara will push a wave of conflict before it as it marches southwards.

 

Read also:

Climate Action is Critical for Sustaining Peace

The UN Wants to Respond to Climate Change and Prevent Conflict, But When?

 

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Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

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Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

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In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

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The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

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Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

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The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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