At a meeting today in the United Nations Security Council on the situation in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, senior UN officials stressed that climate change plays a direct role in the region’s security, development and stability by increasing drought and fuelling conflict.
Speaking via videoconference from Niger, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa and Head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), Mohamed Ibn Chambas, said that he had just met President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger as part of a tour of Sahelian countries on the frontline of humanity’s struggle against climate change.
The envoy also noted that Boko Haram had galvanized attention to the effects of climate change. Another regional example of the effects of climate change included the situation of the Niger River, some sections of which had already begun to dry up, he said.
In addition to climate change, the special representative cited the renewed insurgency in the Niger delta, terrorist activities in northern Mali, deadly conflicts over resources, as well as organized crime, trafficking and violent extremism as threats affecting the region.
Mr. Chambas emphasized that while the fight against terrorism in the region was beginning to yield tangible results, more efforts were needed to support the military campaign against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin area.
Noting that the Lake Chad Basin region was home to up to 50 million people – a population expected to double by 2030 – Mr. Chambas also said the region directly provided livelihoods to about 2 million people and supplied nearly 13 million with food.
For its, part, the UN was committed, within the parameters of its mandate, to help the region address its challenges, the special representative stressed, highlighting that cooperation was needed in that regard. Although tackling climate change and insecurity was the primary responsibility of the region’s Governments, their budgets were already stretched, he said.
In addition, he noted that humanitarian needs continued to grow in the Sahel, with some 9.2 million people needing assistance. Only a small percentage of the $535 million requested for humanitarian assistance had been met, the special representative said.
Also speaking at today’s meeting was Jean-Paul Laborde, Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), who emphasized that climate change was an “aggravator” of conflict and violent extremism in the region, in addition to poor governance, economic instability and unemployment.
Mr. Laborde also noted that few organized crime cases had been prosecuted in the region, stressing that although criminal groups and terrorists might have different objectives, they shared common ground in their recruitment techniques and other activities. In addition, he noted that porous borders and corruption also worked alongside climate change to exacerbate the region’s challenges.
He also said that while concerted action by the region’s countries had weakened Boko Haram, it continued to affect the civilian population. Terrorism was also a complex and constantly evolving threat in the region, he stressed, noting that the UN must ensure that perpetrators of terrorism were punished.
For her part, Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) said the opportunity for coherent action in the Sahel “appears to be closing quickly,” as immense challenges press in and the population grows at annual rates of up to four per cent. For the bulk of the population there, “life is already tough and will get tougher,” creating a breeding ground for disillusionment, crime, radicalization and conflict.
With up to 80 per cent of the region’s people eking out a living from the land, climate change and the accompanying land degradation would further destabilize the situation, she said, warning that tensions over land and water shortages could spiral out of control, as they had done in Darfur.
She recalled her visits last April, with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, to two towns in northern Niger that used to be tourist hubs and trading centres but hich are now major transit points for migrants and where people smuggling has become the only viable economic activity. With desperation increasing, it was estimated that close to 60 million people could migrate to North Africa and Europe by 2035, due to the desertification of sub-Saharan Africa, she said.
She went on to say that interventions to improve the situation in rural areas of the Sahel should prioritize employment and income- generating opportunities, adding that they and should also include clearly-defined land- and water-use and access rules as well as equitable land tenure systems. Calling for rapidly accelerated investment in land rehabilitation and sustainable land management, she said that a land-based approach would build resilience of rural communities to climate change, enhance food and water security and help stabilize much of the region.
“We are not claiming it is a silver bullet, but it would definitely be cheaper and more effective than investing in walls, wars and relief,” said Ms. Barbut.
The day’s final briefer, Hindou Omuarou Ibrahim, Coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, said climate change and desertification have become part of the daily lives of the Sahel’s peoples and are a major cause of instability and insecurity. She said many species of animals and plants have disappeared since she her childhood. Competition over resources was leading to “the survival of for the fittest,” she stressed.