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This SIPRI Essay was originally published in the print edition of the East African on 28 November and in the online edition on 12 December.
To accompany this commentary piece, SIPRI has also produced a video series (below) with interviews from representatives from East Africa.
Africa has shown itself to be a leader on the issue of climate-related security risks. Kenya’s winning bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2021–22 included a pledge to ‘seek lasting solutions to security challenges caused by erratic climatic conditions’. The African Union (AU), for its part, is one of very few regional intergovernmental organizations to explicitly address climate-related security risks within its peace and security architecture.
But what does all this mean in practice? How can we prevent efforts to promote peaceful societies being undermined by the impacts of climate change and resource scarcity?
The Horn of Africa is a region particularly prone to violent conflicts. It is also a region in which large populations rely directly on natural resources and natural systems for their livelihoods: pasture and water for livestock, fertile and well-watered arable land, healthy fish stocks, or productive forests. As a result, 'Whatever changes appear in the pattern of the natural resources we use affects us in a very significant way,' in the words of Eskedar Awgichew Ergete, Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Law Centre at Ethiopia’s Mekelle University.
This can have implications for security. Nicholas Orago, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, notes that: 'What makes climate change a multiplier of conflict is that it impacts the natural resources people rely on for their livelihoods.' This can increase the risk of violent conflict in different but related ways. For example, competition over resources made scarcer by the impacts of climate change can exacerbate existing tensions in an area. So can the arrival of migrants displaced by flooding, drought or storms or violence.
Somalia has been a case in point in recent years. Pastoralists and farmers have clashed as traditional herding grounds have been ravaged by drought. Large numbers of people have left their land and taken refuge in camps and informal communities, where they have been prey to recruiters for the extremist insurgent group al-Shabab. These migrations have changed the demographics of some areas, undermining carefully negotiated power-sharing arrangements and efforts to build governance institutions, according to on-the-ground research.
Indeed, al-Shabab had reportedly adapted its tactics to exploit the situation, providing services and governance structures where the government, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) and other international actors struggle to do so.
What can be done
Nicholas Orago and Eskedar Awgichew Ergete were members of a Horn of Africa Climate Security Working Group, convened by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Kenya Office, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) for a series of meetings between 2018 and 2020. This diverse group included civil society representatives and senior academic climate and security experts from around the Horn of Africa to discuss how regional, continental and international efforts to bring peace could adapt to the new reality of climate change and its impacts on security.
Based on a wealth of direct experience and contextual knowledge, the Working Group was unanimous in calling for peace processes and agreements in the Horn of Africa to become more climate sensitive. This implies a step change in how climate security issues are dealt with. For example, it means that civil society representatives and climate change specialists from the region should be more strongly involved in conflict prevention efforts and peace negotiations. Also, resilience to climate change and the management of security risks around natural resources affected by climate change should be key elements in the planning and implementation of peace agreements.
A big part of what is needed is coordination. Although climate change, insecurity and peace processes are closely interlinked with livelihoods and many other priorities, they are too often addressed separately. For one thing, this is inefficient, leading to duplication of work and overlapping mandates. But it also means shocks in one sphere—particularly climate impacts—can catch the other sectors off-guard.
This time, Somalia offers a positive case study. A number of steps that greatly reduced the human cost of returning drought in Somalia in 2017–18 included the creation of a joint Drought Operations Coordination Centre. The centre has now become a permanent institution, and a cross-sectoral Recovery and Resilience Framework helps the government build long-term resilience. UNSOM appointed its first dedicated climate and security adviser in June this year. And looking beyond Somalia, the AU’s new dedicated ‘climate cluster’, a platform that seeks to integrate climate security into the AU’s work, is another encouraging development.
Moreover, violent conflicts in the Horn of Africa often transcend national borders. Against this background, cooperation on climate security must be between as well as within countries, as well as coordinated with the relevant regional processes of the AU, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and civil society. What is needed is a collective climate security framework for the region.
Finally, local communities affected by the double burden of conflict and climate change need to be given opportunities, time and resources to participate in peace processes. It is precisely at the level of those communities that climate-related insecurity takes root, making it vital to understand their experiences, their vulnerabilities, their knowledge and their solutions.
Together, these steps offer the best chance to ensure that conflict prevention, peace processes and agreements leave societies, both in and beyond the Horn of Africa, better able to cope with the impacts of future climate change.
The Horn of Africa Climate Security Working Group was established by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Kenya Office, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) in 2018. It brought together senior academic experts on climate and environmental along with representatives of civil society from around the Horn of Africa region for a series of meetings to analyse the complexity of violent conflict in the region and its relationship with climate change.
A report on the Working Group process by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), summarizing recommendations for policymakers, is accessible here.
All quotes in this piece are taken from the video interview series ‘Climate-related security risks: Local perceptions from the Horn of Africa’ with members of the Working Group, which are available on SIPRI’s YouTube channel.
About SIPRI Spotlight
The SIPRI Spotlight series is a collection of short, on the spot interviews, captured on occasions where individuals have visited SIPRI for various events, seminars and workshops, or captured in the field. The aim of the series is to capture an array of angles and viewpoints that will stimulate further discussions. While these are designed to offer snapshots, the intention is to provide starting points to contribute to continued dialogue to better understand the conditions for peaceful solutions of international conflicts and for a stable peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Dr Mithika Mwenda (Kenya) is a public policy specialist and the Executive Director of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA).
Henrik Maihack (Germany) is the Resident Director of the Kenya office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).