Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in North-West Africa

The potential for the changing climate and associated migration to induce conflict or exacerbate existing instability is now recognized in national security circles.

By Michael Werz, Laura Conley

North-west Africa is crisscrossed with climate, migration, and security challenges. From Nigeria to Niger, Algeria, and Morocco, this region has long been marked by labor migration, bringing workers from sub-Saharan Africa north to the Mediterranean coastline and Europe. To make the land journey, migrants often cross through the Sahel and Sahel-Saharan region, an area facing increasing environmental threats from the effects of climate change. The rising coastal sea level, desertification, drought, and the numerous other potential effects of climate change have the potential to increase the numbers of migrants and make these routes more hazardous in the future. Added to these challenges are ongoing security risks in the region, such as Nigeria’s struggles with homegrown insurgents, Tuareg separatists, and the growing reach of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has expanded out of Algeria.

The region’s porous borders and limited resources allow AQIM and other violent actors to flourish there, promoting or prolonging instability. These activities suggest that there is no time to waste in cooperatively developing better and more effective policies for and within the region.

The climate, migration, and security nexus is a key test case because it is likely to exacerbate all of these existing risk factors. Climate change alone poses a daunting challenge. No matter what steps the global community takes to mitigate carbon emissions, a warmer climate is inevitable. The effects are already being felt today and are projected to intensify as climate change worsens.

Changing environmental conditions are likely to prompt human migration, and climate change is expected to aggravate many existing migratory pressures around the world. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods are projected to increase the number of sudden humanitarian crises in areas least able to cope, such as those already mired in poverty or prone to conflict. Migration adds another source of stress to state and society in the region and complicates policy responses.

Conflict and insecurity will force the US and the international community to confront climate and migration challenges within an increasingly unstructured security environment. The post-Cold War decades have seen a diffusion of national security interests and threats. US security is increasingly focused on addressing non-state actors and non-traditional sources of conflict and instability. The potential for changing climate and associated migration to induce conflict or exacerbate existing instability is now recognized in national security circles.

This article tracks how the overlays and intersections of climate change, migration, and security create an arc of tension in North-west Africa comprising Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Morocco. These four nations, separated by the Sahara Desert, are rarely analyzed as a contiguous geopolitical entity. Yet they are linked by existing international migration routes, which thread up from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast, moving people and cargo into Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and onward to Europe.

The Arc of Tension

The arc of tension begins in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state. Nigerians are already seeing early signs of climate change in a rising sea level, more frequent flooding, and outbreaks of disease in the southern megacity of Lagos. In the northern part of the country, expanding desertification—which refers to the degradation of land productivity in dry land areas—has caused 200 villages to disappear.

These opposing pressures, driven by climate change, are expected to push internal migrants toward the center of Nigeria. At the same time a rapidly growing and increasingly urban population is seeking greater economic opportunities. The combination of these demographic trends and economic aspirations spur many Nigerians to move north. Existing international migration routes link people leaving Nigeria to Niger, where they cross into the Maghreb states and potentially Europe.

Human mobility and climate change in Nigeria occur amid serious threats to national and local governance. The southern Niger Delta has supported an insurgency since the 1990s, driven in part by anger with corruption and the mismanagement of profits from the region’s booming oil industry. In the northern part of the country, religious tensions have turned violent, with more than 800 people having been killed in the central Nigerian city of Jos since January 2011. Boko Haram has undertaken attacks of increasing violence, and is behind a string of more than 100 armed bank robberies targeting lenders in north. As the effects of climate change worsen, even more will be demanded of Nigeria’s limited governance capacity.

Migrants from Nigeria and other sub-Saharan states who reach Niger, the second link in the arc of tension, enter one of Africa’s most desperate states. Niger has the world’s second highest fertility rate and a median age of only 15 years. Most of the booming population is dependent on rain-fed agriculture, but acreage of arable land has decreased dramatically over the past 50 years, and frequent droughts have impoverished and indebted many Nigeriens. In 2010 a severe drought left 7.1mn Nigeriens without adequate food. Climate change is expected to make the country hotter and more prone to drought, erosion, and loss of forested land, exacerbating already difficult conditions.

Niger also faces ongoing international and internal migration. Due to pressures from desertification and drought, some Nigerien pastoralists have shifted their migratory routes southwards into Nigeria in search of animal fodder and better grazing. In addition, unusual flooding in 2010 damaged many homes and farmland, creating an internal refugee situation and prompting other Nigeriens to seek shelter and employment in Nigeria, Libya, and the Ivory Coast.

Agadez, the largest city in northern Niger, is a key waypoint for sub-Saharan migrants moving north, and a hotspot on the arc of tension. While estimates of the number transiting the country on this path are scarce, some research indicates that at least 65,000 sub-Saharan migrants passed through Niger toward Algeria and Libya in 2003 alone. Approximately half of these migrants are thought to come from the underdeveloped central and southern parts of Nigeria.

Niger also faces a difficult security situation, including conflict over rangeland and water wells in the southeast and the north (especially near the Malian border) and mineral-related conflict in the north. In northern Agadez, home to the world’s second-largest uranium mine, a 2007 drought-driven rebellion by the Tuareg people led the government to dispatch 4,000 troops.

Additionally, Niger is within the range of operations of AQIM, which is known to engage in kidnapping and drug trafficking in the broader region. Agricultural and pastoral livelihoods have been made more difficult by the effects of climate change; this has translated to increasing numbers of disenfranchised youth, who security experts believe are more easily recruited to assist Al Qaeda in return for money and food.

Furthermore, some of the effects of climate change, such as desertification and flooding, are thought to benefit AQIM by depopulating rural areas in which the group can then operate more freely. The Nigerien government has reorganized its security services in the hope of encouraging Nigerians not to engage in violent acts; however, the government has been accused of being incompetent or even unwilling to take action even when information about AQIM is received.

Algeria is the third link in the arc of tension. Like much of the Maghreb, Algeria faces a future made increasingly difficult by the effects of climate change, including increasing temperatures, decreasing rainfall, and a rising sea level. Water is of particular concern—the country already ranks second among African states in terms of water scarcity—as is desertification.

Additionally, climate variability in sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to indirectly affect Algeria by contributing to migration along the arc of tension and other migratory paths. The southern spread of the Sahara Desert is already thought to contribute to seasonal migration from sub-Saharan Africa toward Algeria and the Maghreb.

Algeria experienced a decade of internal violence in the 1990s. This conflict gave rise to the terrorist organization that eventually became AQIM. Although violence has declined significantly since the early 2000s, Algeria has still experienced close to 1,000 incidents of political violence since September 11, 2001, including kidnappings and high-profile bombings. Large ungoverned spaces and poor border controls allow migrants to move north from Niger, but also create space in which groups such as Al Qaeda can operate. Tamanrasset, a major way station for migrants in southern Algeria, is the new home of a joint military command center between Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, which is meant to confront the threat from AQIM.

The arc of tension ends in Morocco, historically one of Africa’s most stable states. Like Algeria, water shortage due to climate change is a serious concern in Morocco. Rainfall is projected to decrease by approximately 20% by the end of the century, according to estimates. The country faces a rising sea level along the coast, including in agricultural areas in the north, which may lead to increasing salinity in freshwater aquifers. With over 40% of the country’s workforce engaged in agriculture, this development poses a fundamental challenge to the current Moroccan economy. Ultimately, shifting climate patterns may result in internal migration, forcing rural populations to move in search of more fertile land and eroding the geographic separation of ethnic groups.

Morocco is also under pressure from existing flows of international migrants, many of whom enter the country in an attempt to continue on to Europe. Two Spanish enclaves on the Mediterranean coast, Ceuta and Melilla, are key destinations for Africans seeking to enter the European Union. In 2005 efforts by hundreds of migrants to break through the fences surrounding the enclaves led to several deaths and resulted in the erection of more sophisticated border fences. Researchers have identified decreasing rain and lower crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa as a factor in the decision to migrate.

The same enclaves that have attracted migrants seeking a chance to enter Europe have also drawn the attention of Al Qaeda. In 2006 Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Al Qaeda’s second in command, called for the liberation of Ceuta and Melilla. Thus far the terrorist network has reportedly not been successful in carrying out an attack in Morocco. An April 2011 café bombing, however, bore the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation. In January 2011 the Moroccan government arrested 27 alleged AQIM members along the border with the Western Sahara.

New Approach Needed

The overlapping challenges of climate change, migration, and security in these four nations pose a critical and complex problem for policymakers. While it is difficult to draw a direct line of causality from specific climate change hazards to the decision to migrate or to a particular conflict, the interrelationships between these factors mean that viewing and addressing them in isolation is no longer sufficient.

Indeed, this particular nexus demands policy solutions that cut across levels of governance and drive the US government to synthesize traditionally distinct fields such as defense, diplomacy, and development. These new, complex challenges will force the international community to finally break from a Cold War-era understanding of security and move toward a more individual-based concept of human security.

This will require institutional reform and a shift in focus. The US will need to prioritize planning for the long-term humanitarian consequences of climate change and migration as a core national security issue. This planning should take place across the defense, diplomacy, and development agencies and the walls between those policy tools should be torn down. Regional bodies, like the Economic Community of West African Statesand the African Union, and development banks should lead efforts to address climate change, migration, and security at a regional level. Finally, the US must fundamentally realign the allocation of resources away from Cold War era weapons systems toward abilities which compel collective action and improve the security of basic livelihoods in the face of changing conditions.

*[A longer version of this article was originally published by the Center for American Progress on April 18, 2012.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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