- World leaders are increasingly concerned about the complex connections between climate and insecurity, including the risk that climate disruption is a “conflict multiplier.”
- The threat is particularly acute in the Greater Horn of Africa, where populations already grappling with food insecurity and armed conflict are experiencing some of the fastest-warming conditions in the world.
- Noting that “the fortunes and stability of this region of 365 million people now look to be at the mercy of weather-driven mayhem”, Robert Muggah, Peter Schmidt, and Giovanna Kuele of the Igarapé Institute draw attention to various efforts already underway in the region to build resilience and call for stepped-up support from global powers.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Scholars and political leaders worldwide are fretting over the complex connections between climate and insecurity. Many social scientists theorize that climate disruption is a “conflict multiplier.” To residents of the Greater Horn of Africa, the relationship is not theoretical. Assailed by endemic poverty, food insecurity and armed conflict, the Greater Horn is already facing a host of preexisting conditions. With some of the fastest-warming latitudes on the planet, the fortunes and stability of this region of 365 million people now look to be at the mercy of weather-driven mayhem.
Yet the threats posed by a changing climate to the world’s poorest countries are still side-stepped in the top-tier of global diplomacy. Even before Russia invaded its neighbor, Ukraine, the Security Council member vetoed the first ever climate security resolution at the United Nations Security Council. China abstained, and while India lacks veto power, it too demurred, apparently in fear of opening a meteorological Pandora’s box to big power intervention. Countries like Ireland, Niger and 113 other UN member states who backed the resolution are likely to keep the issue on the geopolitical agenda.
The visualization of the risks facing the Horn was developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s CreateLab and the Igarape Institute
Ultimately, tackling the most significant global threat of our era is being left in large part to those at the sharp end of the climate emergency. Yet that lopsided burden might just be an opportunity. Nearly five months since the COP26 climate communion in Glasgow, some of the most creative responses to the climate security threat are coming from climate ground zero. Nations and neighbors of the Horn of Africa are launching mitigation strategies, planting forests, and building early warning disaster systems. Regional groups like the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are also raising red flags about the blowback of climate inaction on peace and security.
No one claims that local heroics alone can avert a planetary calamity, much less substitute for multilateral strategies. However with some 25 million people currently facing drought-induced starvation, leaders in the Horn of Africa have neither the time nor the luxury to stand by while behemoths quibble. They are taking action; the rest of the world should help, too. “We have a brief window to save lives and livelihoods,” UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths warned.
The wild weather in the Horn of Africa brings an additional host of miseries. Biblical swarms of locusts make short work of harvests. Waves of migration, displacement and upheaval further fray the social fabric. Bouts of drought and deluge are turning longstanding competition between pastoralists over coveted grazing land increasingly violent. Add the history of armed conflict among an array of extremist groups and an abundance of left-over military hardware, and the region’s prospects look desperate even before climate impacts are taken into account.
Unsurprisingly, Somalia, one of the world’s most fragile states, is already a climate casualty. A decade of a climate stresses has desiccated fields and drowned villages. More than one million Somalis were uprooted in 2020, many of them fleeing to improvised camps and settlements where social services are strained and armed groups prowl for recruits.
Sudan and South Sudan, datelines for the world’s first modern “climate conflict,” are again in harm’s way. Last year’s flash floods in Sudan displaced some 100,000 people and destroyed 15,000 homes. Even worse, predatory local elites are weaponizing climate shocks for profit, enlisting heavily armed militias to capture ever larger herds to drive up prices across parched South Sudan. No wonder water scarcity has become a proxy metric for violent conflict in the weather-beaten grazing areas of Warrap and Unity States.
And yet communities in the Greater Horn are pushing back. Concern with the knock-on effects of climate change is hastening regional mitigation and adaptation initiatives. One is the Great Green Wall, an $8 billion plan to reforest 247 million acres of degraded land and foster climate resilience in a 8,000 km swathe of the Sahel stretching from Dakar to Djibouti. While off to a slow start, the innovative project is leveraging traditional indigenous land use techniques to beat climate adversity.
The visualization of the risks facing the Horn was developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s CreateLab and the Igarape Institute.
Regional organizations and aid groups are also on board. Mercy Corps, a humanitarian group, is providing emergency cash and technical assistance to water-stressed villages in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. IGAD and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization jointly launched Building Resilience for Agro-Pastoralist Communities. The plan includes weather stations, workshops for farmers and herders, and an early warning system to improve farming practices, in the Mandera Triangle spanning Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. The African Union is starting its own Continental Early Warning System, while IGAD has segued with its Conflict Early Warning and Response Network.
Then there is the East African Community’s transborder strategy to ease tensions by fostering collective management of freshwater ecosystems in Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. By 2018, the program had upgraded resource management practices across some 510,000 hectares. The success of these initiatives vindicates the premise of confronting climate conflict challenges before disaster strikes.
Perhaps such regional impulses can convince recalcitrants to return the issue to where it belongs, to the head table of international cooperation. Even if crippling wartime sanctions are unwound, Russia – which is warming faster than most of the rest of the world – is hardly exempt from the global climate crisis.
Still, the message from the Horn is hard to misread: When the only certainty is of an ever widening arc of climate disruption, learning how to cope and quickly and manage precious natural resources amid growing scarcity is more urgent than ever. Mitigation, tech-enhanced adaptation, and community resilience strategies are already under way among the people who have most to lose. Global powers have a lot to learn from the countries of the Horn — they should also have their back.
Robert Muggah is the co-founder of the Igarapé Institute. Peter Schmidt and Giovanna Kuele are researchers at Igarapé Institute.
The Igarapé Institute collaborated with Switzerland, Kenya and Carnegie Mellon’s CreateLab to visualize the climate security nexus in the Greater Horn of Africa. Click here to explore the threats and solutions, and here to the case studies of Somalia and the Sudans.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A growing wave of researchers are studying Africa with a new tool, bioacoustics, listen here: