Climate change, COVID-19 and the Lake Chad conflict

Climate change is contributing to shaping the security and development context around the Lake Chad Basin. The governance deficits, underdevelopment and socio-economic plight of communities living in the Lake Chad Basin have been further exacerbated by environmental stresses and, most recently, also by the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate-related droughts exacerbate water shortages and related stresses, aggravate existing social vulnerabilities and impair the abilities of communities to adapt to changes in their social-ecological systems.

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The research literature on climate-related security and development risks emphasises that climate change must not be seen as predominantly external in its cause, but rather that it exposes and compounds risks that are inherent in social-ecological systems – especially in fragile and conflict-affected environments. Climate-related security and development risks stem from the broad societal impacts of climate-related environmental change on social-ecological systems, and expose and compound inherent societal vulnerabilities that may undermine development and raise the probability of individual, community, state and international insecurity. Risks are highly context-specific, and the coping abilities of societies determine the impacts.

Moreover, when it comes to existing conflict situations, climate change might prolong violent conflict, inhibit peacebuilding, further stress weak governance systems and increase the human costs of war. Climate-related changes compound social, political, economic and environmental challenges, which can escalate to violent conflicts and undermine community and societal resilience.

Governance and development deficits in the #LakeChadBasin have been further exacerbated by environmental stresses and, most recently, also by #COVID19 @CedricdeConing @FlorianKrampe

In the Lake Chad Basin, the combined effect of climate and social drivers – and now also COVID-19 – contribute to increased tensions between pastoralists and farmers, who all depend on the same dwindling resources. Changes in the climate contribute to water scarcity, which has an effect on food and livelihood insecurity. Among others, the failure by governments to mitigate these livelihood stressors also make people, especially young men, more vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups such as Boko Haram. Climate change thus exacerbates human security risks and has contributed to conflict over scarce natural resources in the Lake Chad Basin.

Across the Lake Chad Basin region, violent conflict, climate-related change such as droughts, governance neglect and, more recently, the effects of COVID-19, are creating a confluence of challenges. These interlinked and mutually reinforcing challenges have made the Lake Chad Basin region one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises over the past decade. Of the approximately 17.4 million people living in the conflict-affected areas of Lake Chad, approximately 10 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Approximately 2.7 million people remain internally displaced throughout the Lake Chad Basin, with the majority – an estimated 2 million people – residing in northern Nigeria. Acute food insecurity persists throughout the Lake Chad Basin, with approximately 4.4 million people at crisis and emergency levels. Approximately 500 000 children suffer from severe malnutrition. Continued insecurity is hampering the resumption of normal life, leaving conflict-affected families dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival. 

This complex humanitarian emergency was triggered by the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram and other armed groups since 2009, but the causes of the conflict and underdevelopment have deep roots in inequality and the marginalisation and exclusion of communities in the region. Geographically, the Lake Chad Basin is on the periphery of all the riparian states in the region, and this has resulted in decades of governance neglect. The region is characterised by weak governance, underdevelopment, poor infrastructure, high levels of poverty, rising inequality, endemic corruption, low levels of education and low levels of national integration. These factors have generated a lack of trust between communities and their governments over many generations. This has set the scene for intensifying religious fundamentalism and the rise of armed opposition groups. These factors, coupled with large-scale displacement resulting from both climate change and conflict, further undermine the adaptive capacity of the affected communities. 

Military action may create opportunities for stability and security in the #LakeChadBasin, but only a combination of governance, peacebuilding and conflict transformation can consolidate and sustain peace @CedricdeConing @FlorianKrampe

The Lake Chad Climate Fragility Risk Assessment of September 2018 identified four risks for security and development over the coming period: amplified livelihood insecurity and social tensions; increased vulnerability to climate risks as conflict and fragility diminish coping capacities; intensified and increased incidences of natural resource conflicts; and increased recruitment into armed groups caused by growing livelihood insecurity.

When the Boko Haram insurgency started to have a significant effect on the region around 2009, it was at first understood as a security problem. In response, the member states of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) decided to broaden the mandate of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in 2012 to fight Boko Haram. The African Union (AU) supported the MNJTF politically as well as technically, with planning and other expertise. 

However, over time, as the analysis deepened, the member states of the Lake Chad region and the AU and their international partners, including the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) started to realise that the challenges facing the Lake Chad Basin social-ecological system needed a comprehensive, system-wide strategy that links new and existing security, development, governance and other related initiatives. If left unaddressed, climate-related security risks may lead to hard security challenges, but there are no military solutions to them. Military action may create temporary opportunities for increased stability and security by disrupting and countering those who use violence to pursue their interests, but it is only a combination of governance, peacebuilding and conflict transformation initiatives that can consolidate and sustain peace.

The #LakeChadBasin stabilisation strategy also serves as a mechanism for coordinating initiatives to prevent the spread and manage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic @CedricdeConing @FlorianKrampe

In this context, the LCBC, with the support of the AU, UN and international partners, developed the Regional Strategy for the Stabilization, Recovery & Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin. This regional stabilisation strategy connects the networks, capabilities and resources available at various levels, and shows that multilateral cooperation at the subregional level – amplified, echoed and supported at the AU and UN levels – can contribute significantly to preventing, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and managing climate-related security and development risks. 

While more needs to be done, it serves as an example of how such strategic frameworks can be used to connect key stakeholders both horizontally and vertically, as well as to establish mechanisms and instruments that facilitate and institutionalise their roles in co-governing a shared social-ecological system. Whilst developed to help manage the Boko Haram-affected areas, it now also serves as a mechanism for coordinating local, national and regional initiatives to prevent the spread and manage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr Cedric de Coning is a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and senior advisor for ACCORD. Dr Florian Krampe is a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.