The climate crisis is one of the factors making the Sahel region of Africa one of the scariest places on the planet, becoming “a true epicentre of conflict and insecurity, weak governance, chronic underdevelopment and poverty, demographic pressures,” and climate change itself, the head of the United Nations humanitarian program warned in a recent online lecture.
Sir Mark Lowcock, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, called the region “a canary in the coal mine of our warming planet” in an interview with The Guardian.
“Nowhere scares me more than the Sahel,” he told a group of students from the Paris Institute for Political Science. With the issues it faces only getting worse, he warned the region “is very close to a tipping point—and so by extension are its African neighbours, Europe, and the world.”
The six central Sahel countries—Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, and northeast Nigeria—are seeing “conflicts between farmers and herders mainly over scarce resources, conflicts instigated by terrorist and extremist groups seeking to undermine governments, and violence from organized crime groups running trafficking networks,” The Associated Press writes, citing Lowcock. The number of militant groups operating in the area increased from one before 2012 to more than 10 in 2018, and “there were more violent episodes in 2018 alone than in the whole of the 2009-15 period,” Lowcock said.
Not coincidentally, the Sahel has warmed at more than twice the global average since the 1970s, with serious impacts on livelihoods, in a region with the world’s highest annual population growth rate, at 3%. “Though extreme weather events are occurring elsewhere in the world, communities in the Sahel are much less resilient to changes resulting from climate change,” The Guardian says. “Rapid population growth and traditional lifestyles reinforce the problem.”
“It is very striking how bad the climate problem is,” Lowcock told the paper. “There is a totally inadequate level of international effort in helping these countries adapt to climate change.”
More broadly, the “alarming deterioration” in the region has displaced tens of millions of people, put a record 13.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and triggered massive human rights violations and political instability, he added.
“I have come to realize more and more that humanitarian aid can only be a Band-Aid on a much deeper wound,” Lowcock said in his university lecture. “And right now, the wound is growing faster than the Band-Aid.”
On the eve of an international conference on the humanitarian situation in the Sahel earlier this month, Lowcock said there was “no disagreement about the underlying problems, but there has not been adequate action taken. Whenever world leaders gather, the Sahel tends to be eighth, ninth, or tenth on the list of things to talk about, so it never gets the attention it deserves.”
But “unless we change course and do more things and do them differently,” he warned, “the risk of a genuine global tragedy is going to mount. Problems brewing in the Sahel have contagion potential…and the risks to Europe are particularly transparent.”
The Guardian has more detail on what one EU diplomat called a “perfect storm” of crises in the region.