Recently, there has been a lot of news about military coups in the Sahel region of Africa. We have witnessed three years of coups in Africa’s Sahel region—eight of them in six countries, from Guinea on the Atlantic to Sudan on the Red Sea. This can’t be a mistake. If you look critically at the causes of this instability, it has a lot to do with climate change acting as a “threat multiplier” in the Sahel.
What is the threat multiplier? Where does this term come from? I certainly did not coin this term, as many reading this article will quickly notice. The term actually comes from the U.S. military. They call climate change a threat multiplier because it does not create new problems that did not exist before. It’s taking a problem we already have and making it worse or worse.
The crisis in the Sahel has driven more than 4 million people from their homes, and as Africa’s population grows and climate becomes unstable, the scale of global migration could increase by millions more. Political stability is primarily affected by our economic realities, and if climate change distorts our economic realities, politics will unravel and create instability, especially in fragile regions such as the Sahel.
The Sahel is a semi-arid region of barren sand and rock that marks the natural and cultural transition between the more fertile tropics of southern Africa and the deserts of the north. It starts in the Atlantic Ocean in Mauritania and runs eastward through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan to Eritrea on the Red Sea coast. Over the past few decades, the region has been trapped in a perpetual cycle of famine, religious terrorism, anti-state insurgencies, and arms, drug, and human trafficking.
Food security is a concern in most countries in the Sahel region. Intercommunal conflicts are increasing over competition for land and fresh water. Resources are scarce due to increasing desertification, drought and climate change, but demand for these resources is growing due to the region’s demographics. This imbalance inevitably leads to the depletion of resources, which then turns into civil unrest and conflict.
Climate change is inevitably redrawing the map of the Sahel. In the 1970s and 1980s, Lake Chad was the largest lake in Africa. But since then, climate change has reduced its surface area by 90%. This leaves more than 80 million people without access to fresh water. Yet the region’s population grew at an alarming and rapid pace. Massive population growth in the region, coupled with the devastating effects of climate change, will mean more people competing for increasingly scarce resources.
For more than a decade, all four Lake Chad countries have been hit by severe conflict and violence, which began in northeastern Nigeria and prompted many young people to follow radical charismatic leaders such as Mohammed Yusuf. These violent extremists have now spread to Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Lake Chad may have stopped shrinking over the past 20 years, but people around the lake are facing unpredictable rainfall that affects the lives of those who depend on the lake.
In 2007, 11 countries in the Sahel agreed to plant a green wall in Africa. It is an ambitious Great Green Wall, a collection of reforestation efforts to curb desertification. However, it has been plagued by delays and challenges. The most immediate solution to reducing the multiplier effects of climate change threats is to strengthen good governance in the Sahelian countries. Sub-Saharan African countries that are not part of the Sahel need to take an interest, as their communities will be forced to accept increasing numbers of Sahel refugees for which they are not ready.
Agricultural biotechnologist and climate change activist
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