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Climate change hinders peacebuilding in Mali

Cai Nebe
April 21, 2021

The research group SIPRI has identified a link between climate change and extremism in the West African country. As the region reels from the sudden death of Western-backed strongman Idriss Deby, instability is rife.

Malian refugees, including women and children, walk with their belongings
Many Malians have been forced to flee their lands as climate change and insecurity take their tollImage: Ugo Lucio Borga

A new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has detailed how environmental changes, including limited land, freshwater and other natural resources, are at least partly driving the growth of extremist groups operating in Mali.

"The effects of climate change make peacebuilding more difficult," Farah Hegazi, from SIPRI's Climate Change and Risk Program, told DW. "When climate change has a negative impact on agriculture, for instance, it means people's income goes down."

With most Malians relying on natural resources for their livelihoods, a lack of economic alternatives in some areas means other actors, such as extremist groups, are more likely to step in and offer false promises.

Aerial of Lake Chad
The Lake Chad basin is a vital water source in the SahelImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. K. Kambou

"There seems to be a relationship between child recruitment and scarce rainfall in central Mali," explains Hegazi. "Families send their children to armed groups as a form of income. When there is more rainfall, there is noticeably less recruitment into armed groups."

While SIPRI's report focused on Mali, the effects of climate change also transcend national boundaries across the Sahel.

"Lake Chad used to provide opportunities for communities that depended on fishing for their well-being," Christopher Fomunyoh, the Senior Associate for Africa and Regional Director at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for International Affairs in Washington, D.C. told DW. 

"When you visit the Sahel and Lake Chad, you can't not come to the conclusion that climate change is an existential threat to sizeable populations that live in this area."

Maps showing Lake Chad shrinking

Malian authorities struggle to retain control

Weak governance has significantly compounded these challenges, undermining human security and amplifying local grievances. 

"Climate change interacts with other socio-economic factors, which makes peace and security more challenging," explains Hegazi. 

The SIPRI report focused on the multilateral deployment of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The peacekeeping mission was established in 2013 in the wake of the Tuareg rebellion to bolster the government and neutralize extemist groups which are heavily involved in organized crime and human trafficking. The mission is considered a priority due to its impact beyond Mali's borders, with its mandate due to expire in June.

Falgs of MINUSMA supporting nations above a military camo in Mali
The UN's MINUSMA in Mali is a long battle against several islamic groups in the SahelImage: Getty Images/A. Koerner

With the Malian government still struggling to retain control in the northern part of the country, the introduction of new policies to combat the impact of climate change, such as alternative job creation, is being hindered.

"There are are few opportunities for Malians to engage in economic activites apart from pastoralism, which has led to many taking part in illicit activities such as trafficking," Hegazi says.

Problems stretch across the Sahel

With no solutions to the decreasing water supply and lack of arable land, communities across the Sahel are being forced to migrate in search of better livelihoods. This has also led to an increase in intercommunal-conflict, as rival groups come into contact with one another more frequently.

"We're seeing that across northern Nigeria, there are herder-farmer tensions and skirmishes," says Fumonyoh.

Another factor at play is the type of support Sahel countries have received from Western states. While France has long been a major player in the region due to its former colonial ties, multilateral efforts such as the G5 Sahel and other counter-terrorism operations have also recieved significant international funding.

EU AU Sahel Konferenz in Brüssel Mogherini mit Mahamat, Issoufou und Lacroix hold a joint news conference after an international High-Level Conference on Sahel in Brussels - African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou and United Nations' Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix hold a joint news conference after an international High-Level Conference on Sahel in Brussels, Belgium
Problems in the Sahel have brought European and African leaders together: solving the challenges has proved much harderImage: Reuters/E. Vidal

Speaking in the wake of Chadian leader and France ally Idriss Deby's death at the hands of rebels disgruntled at his regime, Fomonyoh says the event should serve as wake-up call to Western nations operating in the Sahel to better deal with the reality on the ground.

"A number of the Sahel countries and their populations face multiple challenges and true partners should be ready to assist those countries deal with those challenges."

Western partners hit with harsh reality

Fomunyoh also says Western allies need to look beyond their own interests if the situation in the region has any hope of improving.

"You can't be a major power and be a partner just because you're interested in natural resources," he explains. "At the same time, you cannot neglect climate change or issues of governance that arise with members of the partnerships that you develop."

A number of environmental initiatives have taken off in the Sahel, including the Great Green Wall initiative, which aims to stop desertification and make soil arable again by replanting swathes of land. It also aims to create millions of so-called green jobs.

Gardeners plant trees in the Sahel
The Great Green Wall, meant to stop desertification in the Sahel, is way behind schedule in critical regions like Mali and Bukina FasoImage: Imago/Xinhua

But these intiatives are particularly difficult to pull off in conflict-ridden areas and sustainable funding still remains elusive. MINUSMA has its own Environment and Culture Unit. But according to SIPRI, it does not focus on climate risks as a priority and the mission lacks capacity to address these problems. 

Fomunyoh adds that when Western partners complain about migration to Europe, Sahel states "think they're so self-interested that they don't care about the interests of local populations or their permanenliving conditions on a permanent basis."

"If the European Union (EU) and European countries want collaboration and cooperation with Africa and Africans, they have to take a holistic approach and make sure that it's not lopsided and not solely focused on natural resources."