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Climate Migration drives Ethno-political Strife

Climate migration, driven by the Southward advance of the Sahara Desert in West Africa, is putting massive pressures on growing populations and driving disturbing conflicts over issues beyond just resource and land conflicts:

"Due to climate change and the dramatic draught in D the northern Sahelian zone of West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, the Sahara desert has moved at least 130 kilometers south, thereby swallowing the northern parts of many countries in the region. Many research reports indicate that the desert continues to move south at the rate of five kilometers a year.

"One dramatic expression of the trend is the shrinking of the hitherto mighty Lake Chad from 25,000 to 1,500 square kilometers thus losing 90 percent of its coverage in thirty years. The res ult has b een devastating on the millions fishing and pastoralist population that have depended on it in the affected countries of Niger, Nigeria, Chad and the Cameroons. A significant part of the population has had to move south in search of alternative livelihoods.

"The West African Long Term Perspective Study sponsored by the OECD, shows that changes in West Africa are producing three dramatic trends in the population dynamics of the region, over the long term, that is, 1930-2030: First, a tenfold population increase is occurring. Secondly, over half of the population is moving out of rural villages to urban settlements ranging from 5,000 to 10 million people. Thirdly, over half of the population in the northern Sahel zone has moved to the area of the Savannah and Forest zones in the Middle Belt and Southern part of the Region.

"The result is that market dynamics play a major role in social interactions and cultural, social and political changes are occurring at a very fast rate. One manifestation of these changes is citizenship contestation deriving from the population dynamics. The most significant example is Cote d'Ivoire where between two and four million Sahelians have moved in over the past five decades and the result is violent conflict between the indigenes and the settlers. Similar conflicts have also emerged in Nigeria and Ghana.

"The combination of existential crises due to persistent poverty, drought and economic crises has also impacted on the spiritual realm as the level of religiosity and religious intolerance in the region has grown. Key observable trends in West Africa include the following: 1. Rise of identity based conflicts and violence. One aspect is ethnic. The other is the rise of religious fundamentalism, both Muslim and Christian and spread of radical Islam linked to terrorism in the Sahel; 2. Climate change leading to the rapid southward advance of the Sahara Desert and the Sahelian population, repeat crop failures and food shortage, environmental degradation and poor adaptation strategies to natural emergencies; 3. Persistent high population growth rates leading to the emergence of a “youth bulge” in the context of economic crisis, growing unemployment and underemployment heightening scarcity of resources and intense competition for survival."

Implications from IFTF

This type of social pressure caused by climate-induced land transformation will only get worse as climate change grows over the coming century. Population growth over the longer term, combined with existing ethnic and religious tensions and extreme poverty, make West Africa a bellwether for changes to come across the Global South on the edges of climate zones. While desertification is one trend that can drive migration, increase in severe weather events, rising sea levels, and other climate shifts could have even more disastrous and abrupt impacts. The case of West Africa—a region that, for all its problems, is in many ways more integrated and less conflict-ridden than other parts of Africa or Asia—demonstrates that in certain cultural and political contexts, these climate shifts could be potentially far more damaging.

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West Africa Insight, Centre for Democracy and Development, Vol 1, No 9, September 2010, page 11.