Climate Change’s Outsize Impact on Fragile States

When asked recently about the number one threat to national security, former Homeland Security head Jeh Johnson, said without hesitation: climate change. He is not alone. At a September 2021 emergency summit at the UN, President Biden joined with other world leaders to recognize climate change as the central foreign policy, national security, and global threat of our time. With the critical upcoming UN Global Climate Change Conference in Glasgow fast approaching, it is vital that world leaders take concrete action to address the outsize impact of climate change in fragile and conflict-affected states.

As the U.S. struggles with devastating wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, the impact of climate change is even more overwhelming in countries experiencing violent conflict. Climate change is compounding the economic, social, and political challenges faced by fragile states, and exacerbating existing conflicts — as recently detailed in a pioneering report by the G7. This can create a vicious, complex cycle of increasing fragility, as climate impacts erode countries’ ability to implement adaptations.

The Karuna Center for Peacebuilding has been working in conflict affected and fragile countries globally for close to 30 years, and never have the effects of climate change been so apparent as they are in our current work in Nigeria. We are seeing the impacts firsthand in the country’s rural areas, were we partner with the Nigeria-based Neem Foundation and small community-based organizations to address the destabilizing conflicts between farmers and pastoralists.

For decades, communities in Nigeria have been experiencing land and resource conflicts resulting from global climate change as desertification has progressed. However, this has escalated into a serious security issue, with clashes over access to arable land at times becoming deadlier than the Boko Haram insurgency. This is particularly evident in Nigeria’s north, where frequent droughts since the 1970s have resulted in over 350,000 hectares of land succumbing to desertification each year. Natural water sources have dried up, leaving pastures and farmland useless, and rainfall changes threaten Lake Chad, the main water source for 70 million people, threatening livelihoods and increasing already long-standing water disputes.

These climate impacts are putting significant pressure on Nigeria’s already weak governance systems, in turn making it harder to adapt and manage emerging risks. In an alarming turn, there is increasing evidence that most of those who have joined insurgent groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISAP), are from the northern part of the state, where desertification and deforestation are most acute. This clear link between climate change and the militant Islamist insurgency is corroborated by our local partners working in the area.

Others have been pushed further south to find productive land which is in turn creating new conflicts with farmers in central Nigeria. With the government already stretched thin dealing with Boko Haram, banditry and kidnappings, separatist militant groups in the Delta, and other security challenges, it is unable to effectively address the growing challenges of food insecurity and water and land resource conflicts.

Despite these complex challenges, we have seen strong positive results from the community dialogues that Karuna and its partners are facilitating. Dialogue processes are having significant successes, establishing relationships and channels of communication where none existed before, and being embraced by communities, local and state leaders. In a notable breakthrough, community leaders are calling for more dialogues and agreeing to hold regular strategic meetings to resolve conflicts.

For example, during a recent dialogue group in Benue state between farmer and herder associations, the two normally antagonistic groups pledged the first time to strengthen collaboration between their organizations and to jointly advocate to the government for their shared needs, such as expanding agricultural subsidies to herders, and building dams to improve water access. The Chairman of the Farmers Association of Nigeria reported “trust and confidence have been built amongst the two parties,” while the Chairman of the Cattle Breeders Association commented “the dialogue has made it easier for both parties to believe in finding a lasting solution for the long conflict.”

While these successes might seem minor in the face of Nigeria’s enormous challenges, they are significant achievements that underscore the value and importance of working at the local level to support communities’ capacity to resolve differences. Although there are no simple solutions, a people centered peacebuilding approach is vital to effectively deal with the compounded issues of climate change and conflict. The success of dialogue in Nigeria underscores the importance of supporting local institutions and peace leaders, who are always the first responders — and often the only responders — to local conflicts, particularly with overstretched government security forces focused elsewhere.

The risk of increased violence in fragile areas will continue to rise as long as climate change remains a threat. A recent report from the Alliance for Peacebuilding urges U.S. government and aid agencies to develop an integrated, people-centered approach to climate and conflict. To face the number one threat of our time, governments, donors and aid agencies will all need to support and develop innovative approaches to integrating climate change throughout their programs — in partnership with communities on the front lines. Effectively meeting the long-term goal of building societal resilience to climate change is not just a national security issue for Nigeria, but a global one for us all.

Polly Byers, M.A., Executive Director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, a member organization of AfP

Alliance for Peacebuilding is the leading global network working to end conflict and build sustainable peace worldwide. Our 145+ members work in 181 countries.