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The terror of climate change

Tamsin Walker
November 6, 2017

Terrorism and climate change are widely considered as the two most significant threats of our time, but what few realize is to what extent the two are connected.

Soldier in Nigeria on a mission to fight Boko Haram
Image: picture alliance /AP Photo/L. Oyekanmi
vegetable farmer in Mali
Small ideas can solve big problems - solar systems e.g. can provide electricity and make food more durable - both provide income and prevent extremism.Image: Imago

Though terrorism has reared its vicious head throughout the passage of time, the threat it currently poses has cast a very long and bleak shadow over the world. In systematically murdering, raping, persecuting and kidnapping, the so-called Islamic State and Nigerian terror group Boko Haram have collectively sent policy-makers into a tailspin, contributed to the creation of societal divisions beyond the countries where their ideologies were born and set the global public on edge.

And they have done it, in part, with the help of that other deeply disquieting issue of our times – climate change.

"As the climate is changing, so are the conditions within which non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram and IS operate,” Lukas Rüttinger, an expert in peace and security and resources at the Berlin-based adelphi think tank, told DW.

Though he underscores that climate change "does not create terrorists, rebels or criminals,” he says it does contribute to creating the kind of fragile environments in which such groups can thrive, by driving food insecurity and forcing local populations to compete for dwindling natural resources such as land and water.

IS, he says, has used scarcity of the latter in particular, both as a weapon of war and as leverage to source new recruits among rural communities where crop failure and livestock death is rife.

"These groups can offer alternative livelihoods, economic incentives and in some cases, they can respond to real social, political and economic grievances,” he said.

Desertification equals desperation

Yahaya Ahmed, founder of Nigeria's Development Association for Renewable Energies (DARE) cites a correlation between the shrinking of Lake Chad and the rise of Boko Haram as a case in point. "They came as a sort of Messiah for the masses.”

 Some eighty percent of those who live in the Chad Basin – which incorporates Chad, Cameroon, Niger and north-eastern Nigeria - rely on the lake for the farming and fishing that forms the basis of their existance. But at it recedes, more and more land in the region turns to desert

"We found out that about ten kilometers from the border with Niger, around 200 villages were wiped out by desertification,” Ahmed said. "People have to move away, but there is no resettlement program, so they feel very frustrated, and a lot were indoctrinated to take up arms, because that is the only thing they can do.”

Complex solutions for complex problems

Skeptics argue that to draw such a correlation is dangerous talk that diverts attention from the actual threat of terrorist attacks .

Yet Rüttinger, who authored an in-depth report entitled Insurgency, Terrorism and Organized Crime in a Warming Climate earlier this year, says in looking for ways to counter groups like Boko Haram and IS, it is essential to address both to the problems and the solutions holistically.

"It is not enough that foreign policy does their thing, that security policy stays within its silo and then you have humanitarian organizations working on the side and then somewhere development and adaptation funds come in,” the author said. "If we approach these complex challenges in a fragmented manner, we will not be able to solve them.”

In practical terms, that means looking at the full range of pressures and stresses - such as climate change, population growth and urbanization - relating to the preservation of livelihoods and then devising workable and effective ways of tackling them.

Rüttinger holds that this kind of rounded, all-inclusive strategy would render it impossible to ignore the factors feeding into conflict situations, and could make it easier to identify ways of developing "more sustainable livelihoods that are climate sensitive with peace-building co-benefits.”

Micro-scale success story

Ahmed, whose work includes teaching people to sensitize rural communities to sustainable cook stoves as a means of reducing widespread deforestation - itself a major contributor to desertification – has first-hand experience of such co-benefits.

"The divisional police commander brought us four boys he had already arrested 17 times,” he explained. "Because he didn't think locking them up would solve their problems, he asked if we could train them.”

A "little bit skeptical” to begin with, the DARE founder eventually agreed and says he witnessed in them a 180-degree transformation, and that "the most hardened boy” became one of his best trainers.

"He could easily have been wooed by Boko Haram,” Ahmed said, adding that there are many children and youths like him who hang around on the streets begging and sometimes stealing in order to survive. His charges now earn a little and have gained enough sense of perspective to protect them from the advances of a terrorist group that uses the scent of money as a means of coercion.

Multi-tasking finances

Though a micro success story, it is testimony to the positives to be gained from taking a longer, less isolated view. Rüttinger says one way to achieve a similar approach on a grander scale is to establish integrated financing streams, such as peace-building funds that address adaptation.

"If you would have that more, you would have a very strong incentive for development organizations to develop integrated programs.”

As far as Ahmed is concerned, in making intelligent investments, Nigeria could easily prevent its children and youths from falling into the hands of terrorist commanders who "drug them, put a belt around their waist and send them to the most popular church or market place.”

In a nation where less than half the population has access to electricity, but where everyone has access to the sun, he says the answer is obvious. Solar panels and the establishment of micro-grids from which people can sell excess power, and solar driers for perishable produce.

"There is no single home in the country that doesn't use tomatoes every day, but during the harvest it is appalling to see tons and tons being thrown away because there is no processing.”

In drying excess crops, their shelf-life would be extended, which would imply an increase in income and opportunities for young boys susceptible to the moneyed promised of violent groups. 

"I see it as a very simple solution.” Ahmed says, adding that in giving the boys training, skills and perspective, the terrorists would have nobody to recruit. "I am saying Boko Haram can be stopped totally in six months.”

Nigeria: A highway through the rainforest

People wait in a line for water
To tackle groups like Boko Haram and IS, experts need to think across topics.Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Souleiman
View of Lake Chad
There is a connection between the dehydration of Lake Chad and the emergence of Boko Haram.Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. K. Kambou