Climate change is fueling new violent conflict in Africa, U.N. says

·Senior Climate Editor
·6 min read

Violent confrontations over increasingly scarce water in Africa have broken out in northern Cameroon, causing more than 30,000 people to flee into neighboring Chad, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Since Sunday, 22 people have been killed and 30 others seriously injured in fighting between fishermen and farmers, which follows an eruption of violence in August, which led to 45 deaths and forced 23,000 Cameroonians to leave their homes.

The root cause, according to the United Nations, is the dramatic decrease of water levels in Lake Chad, which has lost 90 percent of its surface area since 1963 due to overuse and climate change. “The water body is no longer sufficient to meet the demands of the population who need water to carry out their daily activities,” Benjamin Tonga, a campaigns officer at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations based in South Africa, told Yahoo News. The dwindling of water resources has led to fighting over what is left.

“The conflict started in August between herders and fishermen, and it’s all about the sharing of resources and especially of water,” Xavier Bourgois, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cameroon, told Yahoo News. “What they do in that specific region of Cameroon is fishermen dig holes to do fish farming. As there is a lack of water in this region, the cows are naturally attracted by the water, by these huge holes made by the fishermen. That was the beginning of the conflict.”

The herders raise cattle, and when their livestock are drawn to the muddy, water-filled ditches, they can fall in and drown. So angry herders have attacked farmers to punish them for digging the trenches and to prevent them from making new ones, which in turn leads to reprisals. The fighting that broke out as a result led to the displacement of tens of thousands Cameroonians.

“It was quite violent in the end,” Bourgois added. “Both communities, they started to burn the villages. And so, of course, the civilians started to flee.”

The Logone River
A view of the Logone River. (Xavier Bourgois/UNHCR)

Assiam Yere, a 55-year-old Cameroonian refugee in Chad, told UNHCR in November that she saw nine young men from her community killed. “I am traumatized and I don’t want to return until real peace is restored,” she said.

Northern Cameroon is part of the Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert. As greenhouse gas emissions have caused rising temperatures and more surface water evaporation, the Sahel has warmed at 1.5 times the global average. It is suffering from more extreme weather, including severe droughts punctuated by flooding rains, which the parched land cannot absorb. The U.N. estimates that 80 percent of the farmland in the Sahel has been degraded by these conditions.

Two-thirds of the population in the Sahel make their living from farming or raising livestock. “Under the combined effect of drought and floods, land is deteriorating and losing its fertility,” reported ReliefWeb, a news service from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2020. “Insufficient rain-fed irrigation means that crops fail or are destroyed, while livestock struggle to find water for drinking and sufficient pasture.”

These problems are likely to become more pronounced, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts agricultural yields will decline by 20 percent each decade by the end of this century in some parts of the Sahel.

While the U.N. Security Council rejected a proposal on Monday to incorporate the “security implications of climate change” into its operations, experts say the violence in Cameroon shows that conflict and political instability driven by climate change is a growing security challenge.

A fisherman
A fisherman in the village of Missiska, Cameroon. (XavierBourgois/UNHCR)

“The Cameroon example unfortunately exemplifies the climate security risks you’re seeing in lots of different places around the world — including in sub-Saharan Africa, but not limited to there — where you have states that have what’s called a ‘double burden’ of existing state fragility and then very high climate exposure,” Erin Sikorsky director of the Center for Climate and Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Yahoo News. “And when those two things intersect you get a high risk of conflict or violence related to climate shocks.”

“Particularly in states like Cameroon that have a low governance capacity to step in and help manage these shocks or help communities adapt and build resilience to them, then [locals] take matters into their own hands,” she said.

The most common source of climate change-fueled tension is water scarcity. In 2019, the most recent year for which data has been collected by the Water Conflict Chronology, competition over water led to violence in India, Sudan, Ghana and along the Kenya-Ethiopia border.

“You saw this in Mali in 2019, where you had grazing land become scarce due to floods, and then pastoralists stopped moving around, they gathered in water centers, which created tensions with farmers and fishermen,” said Sikorsky. More than 167 Malians were killed and more than 50,000 fled their homes in the violence that ensued.

Herding cows in the Logone Birni district
Herding cows in the Logone Birni district, near the border of Cameroon and Chad. (XavierBourgois/UNHCR)

While what happens halfway around the world may not strike Americans as posing an immediate risk to their own security, experts say that climate change-driven conflict can lead to instability that ultimately contributes to the growth of terrorist networks and threats to the United States.

“When the livelihood of people are threatened, there are bound to be radical ideologies,” said Tonga. “Cameroon like many other countries around the lake is facing serious treats in terms of terrorism with Boko Haram insurgency in these regions.”

Climate change-related security challenges are also not limited to Africa. Every region on Earth faces the prospect of increased competition for diminishing natural resources such as freshwater, including an ongoing years-long drought in the western United States, leading to parched soil and more widespread wildfires. A Department of Defense report issued in October found that “unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are exacerbating existing risks and creating new security challenges for U.S. interests.”

While 12 of the U.N. Security Council’s 15 members supported the recent resolution, India and Russia, which has a veto, opposed it while China abstained. (All three of those countries are relatively reluctant to address climate change.)

In addition to taking action to limit climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and assisting local governments in brokering peaceful resolutions to conflict over resources, wealthy countries and nongovernmental organizations can try to help residents of developing countries adapt to changing climate conditions. For example, TomorrowNow.org is a Boston-based nonprofit that was recently awarded a $2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop tools to connect farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with high-resolution weather models and satellite data so that they can better plan for irregular rainfall, “If farmers don’t have access to accurate or useful information on the rains, they can’t manage the rains,” Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director for TomorrowNow.org, told Yahoo News.

And if farmers can’t reliably manage water, economic desperation and fights over access to water are sure to follow.

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