OPINION: Africa is caught in the crossfire of climate change and conflict

by Patricia Danzi | @ICRC_Africa | International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - Switzerland
Friday, 20 September 2019 14:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Zeinab, 14, (C) washes dishes as her mother Abdir Hussein gestures and her nephews play at a camp for internally displaced people from drought hit areas in Dollow, Somalia April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Limiting climate change through a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is the only way to avert the most disastrous consequences, and to limit forced displacement

Patricia Danzi, regional director for Africa, International Committee of the Red Cross.

Only the most vicious of Somalia’s droughts get a name. The current one is named Sima, meaning “equal,” as in the drought is hammering everyone equally hard.

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Mali also doesn’t have enough rain. Or it comes at the wrong time. Or too much of it comes at once. In South Sudan, drought is hurting families already on the run from conflict.

Aside from increasingly frequent water woes, Somalia, Mali and South Sudan have another deadly scourge in common: war.

Across Africa, climate change and conflict make for an explosive mix. Nine of the top 10 countries considered most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa, according to the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, and seven of those nine are affected by armed conflict.

In short, climate change is hitting Africa harder than anywhere else. Food production, medical care, education, and jobs are all negatively affected.

"The rains of my childhood were not like now. They came at the right time and the quality of the grass was good. Nowadays, ponds are filled with sand," Peuhl, a 61-year-old community chief in Mali whose family has been forced to flee because of conflict, told us.

As regional director for Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I see how climate and violence set a deadly trap. Many communities suffer from severe water shortages even as they host thousands of displaced people.

The continent’s youth in particular face a stark choice. Conflict closes schools (700 shut in Mali last fall), and drought turns families hungry. That leaves few good choices, among them a risky journey in search of a job, or joining one of Africa’s 250-plus armed groups.

Would you stay in your home country if there were no doctors? In Burkina Faso, violence between armed groups and the government has accelerated this year, forcing the closure of 60 medical facilities.

Even as doctors flee violence, climate changes are affecting disease patterns, lengthening the transmission season of vector-borne diseases and altering their geographic range. Malaria, which kills 400,000 a year in Africa, mainly children, is moving to higher elevations.

Record hot spells, desertification, a loss of crops and grazing lands, thinning aquifers and unpredictable weather patterns tend to accentuate inter-communal tensions and violence, often between pastoralists and farmers competing over scarce resources.  

The lack of rain often forces families to take on debt. Seeds meant for planting crops are instead used to feed hungry children. The loss of cattle due to drought means a change in lifestyle from rural to urban, and not everyone possesses the skills to adapt.

Baba Alamin is living through conflict and climate’s one-two punch. The 35-year-old has spent the last four years at a displaced persons camp in north-east Nigeria alongside 157,000 others. Alamin tries to grow crops, but the rains are unpredictable, and the crowded camps mean scarce farmland.

“We’re in the middle of the rainy season. It should be raining two or three times a day, but it’s not like before. We’ve tried planting okra three times now. Each time it dies,” said the father of six, who - perhaps superstitiously - blames conflict for his climate quandary: “The rains for us are a blessing. Because of the conflict, the rains don’t come.”

Nigeria, already Africa’s most populous nation, is predicted to see its population double over the next 30 years to 400 million. The nation is also predicted to temperature increases of 2 to 4 degrees F (1.1 to 2.5 degrees C) by 2060, according to World Bank data[1].

The ICRC does not claim a direct correlation between climate change and armed conflict, but it’s clear conflict-affected countries are particularly ill-equipped to deal with climate impacts. Despite this, support is often stronger in more stable countries, where functioning structures can process aid. But we must reach people in the most need.

What can be done? First, solutions must be local, including increased education. Solar-powered pumping stations and small dams can help farmers succeed. Communities need to be built into the response’s design, and humanitarians need longer-term financing so they can build long-lasting solutions.

On a global scale, limiting climate change through a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is the only way to avert the most disastrous consequences, and to limit forced displacement.

Bahile Hassan, a 60-year-old Somali grandmother, has lived through three named droughts, including Mahanaw in the 1980s and Mahadiid in the 1990s. Today’s protracted drought is the worst of the three, she said.

“Over the last four years it has rained three times,” said Hassan, who told us her region’s school and hospital were destroyed by fighting. “Now the animals have no water, no grass, so how do we depend on that?”

Hassan peered into the future: “It will be way worse in the coming years.”

[1] https://climateknowledgeportal.worldbank.org/country/nigeria/climate-data-projections