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Climate-related security risks in the SADC region

Tropical Cyclone Idai from space
Tropical Cyclone Idai Photo: Flickr/NASA

Southern Africa is among the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. Climate-related impacts such as droughts, floods and tropical cyclones undermine development and reduce the availability of natural resources, affecting the majority of the region’s population. Further, climate change can increase the risk of insecurity and violent conflict, when its impacts interact with social, political and economic stresses to compound vulnerabilities. Although southern Africa is not a hotspot for climate insecurity in comparison with other regions on the continent, climate change is worsening livelihood and food insecurity, displacement and migration, and heightening competition over land and water resources. As a result, climate-related impacts are likely to exacerbate the tensions and dynamics of ongoing conflicts, as well as affect peace efforts in the region. 

Considering the transnational and multidimensional nature of climate-related security risks, regional organizations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) can play a key role in the assessment and coordination of responses to them in the region. SADC is an intergovernmental regional organization with 16 member states: Angola, Botswana, the Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Its main objectives are to achieve development and economic growth, promote peace and security, and alleviate poverty in southern Africa. However, unless there is adequate assessment of and means to mitigate them, climate-related security risks may have negative impacts on peace and security in the region, and on the overall objectives of SADC.

As this SIPRI Topical Backgrounder shows, SADC mainly recognizes climate-related security risks implicitly in its mandate, policy documents and meeting notes, with a few exceptions that make the climate–security connection more explicit. Its responses to such risks are also highly sectoral, with limited capacity and resources for effective implementation. To date, SADC has no explicit action plan or policy framework targeted at addressing climate-related security risks. There is a clear need for SADC to step up its understanding and assessment of climate-related security risks, including coordination between different sectors, in order to mitigate and prevent them.

This backgrounder is based on a qualitative review of policy documents and meeting reports published by SADC and builds on SIPRI’s research into how regional organizations frame and respond to climate-related security risks. It provides an overview of the climate-related security risks in the SADC region, the current discourses on these risks within SADC, and SADC’s institutional architecture and policy responses to climate change. It concludes with some ways forward to consider for the future.

Climate-related security risks in the SADC region

Some of the key pathways through which climate change can affect and increase the risk of violent conflict and insecurity include worsening livelihood conditions, increasing migration and displacement, changing military and armed group tactics, and exploitation by elites and resource mismanagement (see figure 1). Therefore, understanding southern Africa’s specific socioecological vulnerability and how these pathways unfold in the region is critical, given its deteriorating livelihood opportunities, rising food insecurity, increasing migration and displacement, and ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises.

Figure 1. Pathways and entry points

Figure 1. Pathways

Source: SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.


Socioecological vulnerability

Southern Africa’s high vulnerability to climate change is partly due to its already frequent exposure to extreme weather events, low adaptative capacity, and high dependency on climate-sensitive livelihoods and natural resources. Temperature projections for the region indicate an increase in mean annual temperature by the end of the 21st century, which may contribute to prolonged dry spells and droughts. Long-term precipitation projections indicate a decrease in mean annual rainfall, while short-term projections indicate an increase in rainfall variability in 2022 and 2023, with some parts of the region expected to experience low rainfall.

Extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods and tropical cyclones, have become more frequent over the years, placing significant stress on the population. During 2021 and 2022 the SADC region experienced six cyclones, which affected over 2.5 million people in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, conflict in the DRC and the ongoing insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province continue to drive displacement and disrupt livelihoods. In 2022 about 1.5 million people were newly displaced in the DRC and over 76 000 in Mozambique. Combined with high levels of poverty, low development, inequality and conflict, the economic shocks from the Covid-19 pandemic have also compounded the region’s vulnerability (see table 1).

Climate change then accentuates existing risks, particularly for vulnerable groups such as the rural and urban poor, small-scale farmers and internally displaced persons. Women and girls are also disproportionately affected due to unequal access to productive assets, such as land and water, and to decision-making processes in the region.

Table 1. Country comparison of climate change vulnerability, human development and peace

Pathways to insecurity

Climate change poses a particular risk to the predominately rain-fed agricultural sector, which is critical to SADC’s regional development, as about 70 per cent of southern Africa’s population depends on it for livelihood opportunities (employment and income). The downward and highly variable trend in rainfall has put national agricultural production at stake. In the past two decades, an increasing number of SADC member states have reported declining crop yields due to the impacts of climate change. According to the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises, over 43 million people in 11 SADC states (Angola, the DRC, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe) are reported to be experiencing acute food insecurity. The war in Ukraine has also disrupted global food supplies and inflated the prices of imported commodities, such as wheat and petroleum products, which has further affected food security and livelihood conditions in the region. In the DRC, for example, the prices of the main imported foods—rice and refined vegetable oil—have increased by up to 30 per cent.

On the one hand, frequent droughts, floods and tropical cyclones continue to disrupt and deteriorate livelihoods across the region—Madagascar, for example, is currently facing its worst drought in over 40 years. While, on the other hand, the ongoing conflicts in Mozambique and the DRC are negatively affecting livelihood conditions, exacerbating the humanitarian situation in the region. Without adequate responses to these climate-related security risks, the effects of climate change on livelihoods and food security could pose an even greater risk to security, creating low opportunity costs to engage in violence and be recruited by non-state armed groups and, in turn, worsening the conflict dynamics in the region.

Further, climate-related disasters continue to drive internal displacement and migration in southern Africa. As mentioned above, over 2.5 million people have been displaced by tropical cyclones in the last two years alone, making food insecurity and the humanitarian situation even worse. Deteriorating access to productive assets, such as water and arable land, has also contributed to migration from rural areas to urban areas, as people seek alternative livelihoods and sources of income. Migration and displacement can then pose a risk in host communities due to competition for basic services, resources, employment opportunities and other livelihood options. Indeed, migrants from Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe to neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Namibia and South Africa have been accused of ‘overburdening already strained economies’.

The impacts of climate change can also affect the existing tensions and dynamics of ongoing conflicts, including the strategic tactics of military and armed actors. In times of distress and in the absence of state actors, for example, people can be forced to seek help from armed groups, or they can be lured into joining these groups and the conflict itself. In fact, in the case of the Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, the rise in violent extremism is reportedly congruent with the increase in climate impacts such as cyclones (as well as other social and economic factors).

Moreover, land and water resources affect security and socio-economic development in the SADC region. In the north-east of the DRC, for example, local tensions between Hemu herders and Lendu farmers are partly driven by access to land. Climate-related impacts could therefore further exacerbate these tensions by reducing the availability of arable land for agriculture and livestock production. Increased temperatures and declining rainfall patterns also pose a significant risk to water resources in the region, with drought-induced water scarcity continuing to be a challenge. Indeed, early warning systems have already reported increased competition for water resources, which has resulted in conflict between upstream and downstream farmers, such as in the case of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers. As water scarcity increases in Tanzania too, for example, water conflicts are expected to intensify, as well as local disputes and tensions in receiving areas. Overall, the projected increase in temperatures and in the frequency of droughts will continue to threaten water resources and may increase the risk of conflicts over water in southern Africa.

Current discourses on climate-related security risks within SADC

The framing of climate change as a security challenge, including which specific security risks are recognized and discussed, can inevitably shape responses. Since the inception of SADC, climate change and broader environmental issues have been central to its discussions, mainly related to regional economic growth, poverty alleviation and development. References to the impacts of climate change on food, energy and water security have been particularly prominent, leading to calls for an integrated regional response across the food, energy and water sectors in order to meet regional demands in these areas in the wake of climate change.

Climate change has also been recognized as a cross-cutting theme in SADC’s overarching policy frameworks. For example, SADC’s Vision 2050 and  Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP) 2020–2030 both stress the need to address climate change as a cross-cutting issue that can affect the attainment of sustainable development, peace and security, and regional integration. Further, SADC’s regional vulnerability assessment reports have increasingly recognized the interlinkages of climate change and conflict in compounding vulnerability in the region. For example, its Synthesis Report on the State of Food and Nutrition Security and Vulnerability in Southern Africa 2022 notes the role of droughts, tropical cyclones and conflicts in driving displacement and accentuating food insecurity. 

Linked to SADC’s peace and security architecture, the revised Strategic Indicative Plan for the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation makes reference to climate change as a challenge to peace and stability. Recently, the Ministerial Committee of the Organ also listed climate change among the ‘emerging threats’ to peace and security in the region, calling for the need to step up mitigation and adaptation efforts, and disaster preparedness.

Moreover, explicit references to climate security are made in SADC’s Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan for 2015–30, where climate change is referred to as a ‘threat multiplier’ likely to affect human security by exacerbating water stress, food and livelihood insecurity, displacement and migration, and conflict over scarce resources.

Thus, SADC’s historically implicit framing of climate change as a security issue has evolved over the years, with increasingly explicit recognition of the climate–security connection. However, this framing differs somewhat within SADC. For example, the climate architecture views it as a human security issue, as highlighted by the Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, while the peace and security architecture views it as a threat to regional peace and security, implying that it is a hard security issue. Going forward, there is a clear need to harmonize and improve understanding of climate security within SADC, including broadening the threat multiplier discourse to allow for adequate policy action.

SADC’s institutional architecture and policy responses to climate change

SADC’s regional responses to climate change have been mostly led by the policies of different sectors and their responsible implementing directorates and units. However, it does seek to align this work through the Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan mentioned above, which prioritizes mitigation and adaptation efforts and also places the SADC Secretariat at the centre of coordinating the implementation of climate action in the region.

In terms of SADC’s institutional architecture, responses to climate change have taken a more prominent role under the Secretariat and its various directorates and units than elsewhere in the organization. Under the Secretariat, for example, the Climate Services Centre provides services for monitoring and predicting climate conditions, which are used to provide advice and guidance to member states. Also under the Secretariat, the Disaster Risk Reduction Unit (DRRU) is responsible for developing policy frameworks and coordinating implementation of regional disaster risk reduction programmes.

However, responding to climate-related impacts has also been part of the peace and security architecture. The Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, for example, has the specific objective to ‘enhance regional capacity in respect of disaster management and coordination of humanitarian assistance’, as part of its overall goal to promote peace and security in the region.

Moreover, early warning, frequent regional vulnerability assessment and disaster response have been key parts of SADC’s responses. Examples of such include the Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SARCOF), the SADC Regional Vulnerability Assessment and Analysis (RVAA) Programme and the SADC Disaster Risk Management and Information System (DRM IMS). The weather and climate information and regional vulnerability assessments are aimed at improving policy planning and intervention by member states and partners. Yet, despite these and many other efforts, SADC’s regional responses to climate change continue to be impeded by insufficient institutional capacity and inadequate finances, preventing effective coordination and implementation.

As SADC seeks to improve its regional responses to climate change and its overall peace and security situation, it needs to prioritize the assessment and prevention of climate-related security risks within its policies and at the institutional level. As such, SADC could make use of its existing institutions working on climate action and its peace and security architecture to undertake assessments through its early warning systems, regional vulnerability assessment and analysis programme, and disaster risk management, among others. An important element of the work would be improving cross-sectoral collaboration to effectively map out the risks and entry points to mitigate them. A key step would be setting up a policy framework and action plan to guide the assessment, coordination and mitigation of climate-related security risks, including improving coordination between climate practitioners and the peace and security architecture.

Ways forward

Addressing climate-related security risks in southern Africa will require improved and adequate understanding and assessment of how, when and why these risks arise (including their broader implications for the region), which areas and countries are most vulnerable, and ultimately how to mitigate them.

Although climate security may not be high on SADC’s agenda, drawing lessons from other regions and regional organizations can help SADC step up its efforts to assess, anticipate and address climate-related security risks. It can draw lessons from regional organizations such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which are further ahead in terms of addressing climate-related security risks in their regions. At IGAD, for example, collaboration between its conflict early warning and response mechanism and its climate prediction and application centre has led to the formulation of a transhumance protocol, in a bid to mitigate climate-related security risks. Such lessons can be vital for SADC’s own cross-sectoral collaboration.

Further, as one of Africa’s eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs), SADC is an important building block in the work of the African Union (AU) and its efforts to address climate-related security risks should be aligned with the AU’s ambition to expedite the assessment of climate-related security risks that threaten the continent’s peace and security, and with the attainment of the AU’s Agenda 2063.

Finally, establishing partnerships with international organizations and research organizations that are working in the field can also help strengthen SADC’s capacity to take up the climate security baton.


Katongo Seyuba is a Research Assistant in the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.
Tània Ferré Garcia was an intern with the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.