Advancing the Climate Security Agenda in the SADC Region

Photo: EC/ECHO/Nicolas Le Guen

Southern Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change due to its physical exposure to weather events, low adaptive capacity and high dependence on climate sensitive livelihoods.

Climate change is affecting prospects for peace and security in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. However, much of the policy and research attention on climate security on the African continent is focused on other regions such as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. Yet, SADC hosts some of the most fragile and climate vulnerable countries. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Southern Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. Its vulnerability is due to its physical exposure to weather events, low adaptive capacity and high dependence on climate sensitive livelihoods and natural resources. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, including climate related droughts, flooding and tropical cyclones are affecting the majority of the Southern African population. These impacts are undermining development, exacerbating poverty, livelihood and food insecurity, and migration and displacement in the region. In combination with existing vulnerabilities, climate related impacts are likely to exacerbate grievances and tensions and increase the risk of conflict in the region. Therefore, understanding how climate change and its related impacts can affect peace and security should be a high priority for SADC and its member states, and partners working in the region.

According to the IPCC, Southern Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change

Pathways of climate insecurity: SADC region

Climate change impacts can interact with political, social, and economic stresses to compound existing vulnerabilities which may increase the risk of instability and violent conflict. Some of the pathways in which climate change can increase the risk of instability and violent conflict include worsening livelihood conditions, increasing migration and changing mobility patterns, changing of armed groups tactics and strategic operations in response to climate related impacts, and exploitation by local and national elites linked to natural resource governance in times of scarcity.

In the SADC region, climate change is already worsening livelihood conditions and increasing the risk of food insecurity. About 70 percent of the SADC population depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Climate change, particularly changes in temperature and rainfall patterns have adversely affected agricultural production, livelihoods, and regional food security. As reported by the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises, over 43 million people in the region were experiencing acute food insecurity. Climate related extreme weather events and disasters such as droughts, floods and tropical cyclones, have also increased food and livelihood insecurity across the region. For example, Madagascar is currently facing its worst drought in over 40 years, and parts of Angola, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia have been severely affected by prolonged dry spells and droughts. Climate related impacts are also disrupting critical infrastructure such as housing, schools, hospitals, markets, and affecting hydro power generation, among others. Therefore, the impacts of climate change are not only affecting agriculture related livelihoods but more broadly undermining development and affecting critical sectors and exacerbating poverty and livelihood insecurity in the region. Worsening livelihood conditions linked to climate change, can exacerbate grievances especially for marginalised and vulnerable groups, and increase tensions over access and control of resources and livelihood options. This can create low opportunity costs to engage in violence and be recruited by non-state armed groups.

Climate related disasters and loss of livelihood opportunities increase migration and displacement in the region. For example, tropical cyclones displaced over 3 million people in the region. Climate-linked reduced availability and access to water and arable land has also contributed to migration from rural to urban areas as people seek alternative livelihood and income sources. Increased migration and displacement can pose a risk in host communities due to competition for basic services, resources, employment opportunities and livelihood options. For example, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia have experienced an influx of migrants from neighbouring countries, who have been accused of ‘overburdening already strained economies’. Without adequate responses, increased climate related migration and displacement and the resulting pressures and resource competition that may arise from it can increase the risk of conflict in host communities. Migrants and displaced populations are also at risk of recruitment in organised crime and armed groups activities especially where there are no sustainable livelihood alternatives.

Climate related impacts can also affect dynamics of ongoing conflict and the tactics or strategic operations of armed groups. In north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for example, conflict between the Hemu herders and Lendu farmers are partly driven by access to arable land. The conflict between these two groups could further be exacerbated by climate related impacts which may reduce availability of arable land. In Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique, the rise of violent extremism is partly linked to the devasting effects of climate related impacts such as cyclones. In times of distress, and in the absence of state actors, people are forced to seek help from extremist groups or lured to join the conflict and extremist groups. Research has shown that armed groups can capitalise on climate impacts to boost recruitment, occupy productive lands, and control access to resources in times of scarcity.

Shared water resources are critical for the region’s socio-economic development, so is the management of these resources in the wake of climate change. Despite commendable commitments by SADC and its member states to manage shared water resources, drought-induced water scarcity will continue to be a challenge for Southern Africa. The projected increase in temperature in the region, and the frequency of droughts will continue to threaten water resources. Coupled with exploitation and mismanagement, climate induced water scarcity may increase the risk of conflicts over water in the region. Reports already indicate increased competition for water resources and conflict risks, for example, the conflict between upstream and downstream farmers in the Chobe and Zambezi rivers. Understanding how the impacts of climate change will affect water resources and existing sharing arrangements, and the potential conflict risk that may arise is critical to manage and prevent water resource conflicts at various scales.

Moving ahead

Although climate security is not high on the agenda in the region, given the growing impacts of climate change on livelihoods and the existing fragilities, it is important to increase the attention and consideration of climate and security links and the understanding of how climate change may affect peace and security in the region. Further, it is important for institutions in the peace and security architecture to adequately consider how climate change affects their operations, and how they can contribute to addressing climate related security risks. Because climate security spans across different fields, (development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding, among others), institutions in these fields also need to speak to each other to effectively mitigate climate related security risks.

Worsening livelihood conditions linked to climate change, can exacerbate grievances especially for marginalised and vulnerable groups, and increase tensions over access and control of resources and livelihood options

As a step forward, there is need to a) improve research on climate security and assessment of climate related security risks in the region, b) develop policy frameworks and practical steps at regional and national level to prevent and mitigate climate related security risks, and c) improve coordination at regional and national level between different actors. Lessons can be drawn from other regions to step up prevention and responses to climate related security risks.

Katongo Seyuba is a Research Assistant with the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme. His research focuses on climate-related security risks and policy actors’ responses, particularly in the context of Africa.

This is a summary of a SIPRI Topical Backgrounder on Climate-related security risks in the SADC region authored by Katongo Seyuba and Tània Ferré Garcia which was published on 23November 2022.

Article by:

Katongo Seyuba
Researcher & Development Practitioner

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