What lies beneath: How climate change could aggravate problems that reach Europe’s shores

The Sahel would benefit from new multilateral institutions that head off instability by addressing the problems of environmental stress in the region

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The dramatic shrinking of Lake Chad has exerted an enormous effect on the wider Sahel region, not least in helping provoke environmental troubles and humanitarian disaster, including drought and famine. For Europe, environmental degradation has long been exacerbated conflict and migration in the Sahel region, often with direct implications for European shores.

Environmental stresses act as ‘multipliers’, aggravating social, economic, and political drivers of instability. They do so by precipitating food or water insecurity, reducing the arable land available for agriculture, and increasing tension around scarce resources. 

In the past, policymakers have mostly addressed the various environmental challenges in the Sahel from a developmental perspective. This remains true today. For example, in February the Sahel Alliance presented the ‘G5 Sahel’ with plans to invest €6 billion in development funds between 2018 and 2022. On the one side, the Sahel Alliance comprises France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and United Nations Development Programme. On the other, the G5 Sahel is a regional framework made up of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad. The Alliance has stated that “peace and development [in the Sahel region] go hand in hand.”

Climate and food security are key parts of the Sahel Alliance’s work. Its investment in these areas has had a positive impact, and a long-term development agenda is of great importance for sustainable stabilisation. Furthermore, given that environmental stresses are predominantly multipliers, rather than ‘root causes’ of conflict and migration, there is a sound argument for keeping them on the development agenda. 

Water scarcity has already resulted in protests in Morocco and significantly ratcheted up tension between Egypt and Ethiopia

However, this development-led approach underestimates the potential for an environment-focused agenda to contribute more directly towards mitigating instability in the region. More worryingly, viewing environmental challenges solely through a development prism overlooks the longer-term threats that are likely to arise from climate change.

Regional states and members of the international community must actively begin preparing for climate change itself becoming a root cause of instability and conflict in the medium-term future. Therefore, alongside development efforts in the region, there is both immediate and longer-term benefit that could be gained from adopting a more proactive policy that engages with environmental challenges from a security perspective.

Primarily, new or existing organisations should consider developing frameworks for best practice collaboration between regional and international actors to address the destabilising impact of environmental degradation. European states are in a strong position to help facilitate or support the creation of these institutions, either through financial or advisory support.

The remit of such regional institutions could include: the regulation of the usage of shared water aquifers; the codification of processes for the resolution of disputes that arise between states with shared surface water bodies; or the development of a shared regional agenda for addressing the challenges of water scarcity.

While development efforts are often localised, an agenda that tackles shared environmental concerns could offer new avenues for collaboration between Europe and the region as well as among regional players. For example, addressing water scarcity is an issue that has implications for both the Sahel region and north Africa. While the Sahel has more immediate environmental concerns relating to desertification and rising temperatures, north Africa too is likely to face its own environmental challenges in the near to medium term. Water scarcity has already resulted in protests in Morocco and significantly ratcheted up tension between Egypt and Ethiopia

Cooperation between the countries of the Sahel and the Maghreb is a prerequisite to tackling non-environmental transnational challenges, including smuggling, human trafficking, conflict, and migration flows. Policies for addressing migration and conflict in the Sahel region have to date been heavily politicised, with responses from European or north African countries often seen as competing and self-serving.

Regional institutions that focus on mitigating environmental instability could create opportunities for engagement that are less politicised and that may be able to circumvent regional rivalries, primarily among the north African heavyweights that jockey for power in the Sahel, helping facilitate collaboration elsewhere. Moreover, with the advance of climate change, there is likely to be a real, longer-term value to such collaboration. Multilateral institutions which focus on alleviating and averting environmental stresses are likely to become key players in mitigating future instability directly caused by climate change.

Events on the ground demonstrate the growing link between environmental stress and conflict. Given this, it will be unwise to continue to confine environmental matters to the development agenda, but rather to expand its focus to encompass security as well. Organisations such as the United Nations have slowly begun taking steps to demonstrate their recognition of the capacity for environmental degradation to create instability.

Encouraging greater regional cooperation on environmental matters has the potential to enhance European and regional capacity to cooperate on core issues related to conflict and migration in the near future. But it also lays the groundwork for the medium term, when climate change means that environmental considerations will more than ever shape European stabilisation policies for the region. It is imperative for the EU to increase its attention on environment issues – which currently play second fiddle to more visible issues like conflict, but which will become factors of destabilisation even more than they have in the past.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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