Climate responses in the Central Sahel: Three lessons beyond COP26

In the Central Sahel, climate commitments are hampered by a lack of coordination and finance, while insecurity puts further pressure on the region. Can COP26 help address some of these blockages?

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      Will COP26 be remembered? So far, the summits have had little repercussions on people’s lives, while climate change impacts have been felt more and more intensely, particularly in Africa. Africa’s youth might be at the forefront of climate activism, but at the political level, the continent struggles to speak with one voice: no official common African position has been released ahead of COP26. These coordination problems also hamper much-needed climate responses at the regional level, as our research in the Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali) shows.

      In the Central Sahel, climate change is causing more intense and frequent droughts, as well as floods, erratic rainfall, warming temperatures and regreening (wetter conditions have led to more vegetation). As a result, people experience more food insecurity and threats to their livelihoods. In Niger, over half a million people were affected by torrential rains in 2020, and many lost their homes. These changes are predicted to continue, with Sahelian temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average.

      Additionally, climate change affects the availability, distribution and quality of natural resources, which can escalate conflicts over those resources. Regional organisations working in the Central Sahel struggle to address these climate change impacts and related security risks. There are three main reasons for this: slow progress on climate security, inadequate financing and a lack of coordination.

      Slow progress on climate security


      The Planetary Security Initiative Climate defines climate security risks as risks that “manifest themselves when the impacts of climate change aggravate the drivers of violent conflict and insecurity”. The African Union recognises the threat that climate security risks pose for the continent, and has been calling on states and regional economic communities to take action.

      But while regional organisations working in the Sahel have been trying to address climate impacts in their security work in various ways, results have been limited so far. One important reason is that regional organisations – and to a large extent also international organisations – work in silos. Their security and defense and environmental departments often do not work together.

      But perhaps the main reason is that security is still seen primarily as a military endeavor by states and states are the one making the big decisions (on for instance the budget) in regional organisations. This limits human and financial resources from going into climate security.

      The Liptako Gourma Authority (LGA) is a case in point: it was created in 1970 to promote the development of the ‘three-border’ region between Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, and its mandate was extended to security in 2017. It could have used its relationships with farmer and herder associations to address farmer-herder conflicts. But four years later, a security expert still hasn’t been appointed.

      Inadequate financing


      Another reason is the global adaptation finance gap: Mali needs US$ 8 billion for adaptation alone. That is way more than what it got from international climate funds between 2015 and 2022 (roughly US$ 250 million) and from multilateral and bilateral public aid (some US$284 million in 2016).

      Such a funding gap is problematic for both states and regional organisations. The latter are forced to rely on international financing because their own member states often only provide a fraction of the funding they owe. An interviewee from the Lake Chad Basin Commission told us that member states had not paid their contributions for the last three years. But international funding is also an imperfect solution, because it is often short term (two or three years).

      When the money is there, it is not always spent in the most efficient way. At the One Planet Summit in January 2021, the biggest announcement on the Sahel was the US$ 14 billion pledge to finance the Great Green Wall Initiative. But so far this initiative has missed deadlines, lacked oversight, and its implementation has been limited.

      No coordinated climate approach


      In the Central Sahel, a myriad of regional and international actors work on climate change, but they struggle to make sense of who does what. Regional organisations have overlapping mandates and do not cooperate in a systematic way. For instance, as the regional ‘political leaders’, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) both introduce environmental policies and programmes, but there is not one common framework despite coordination efforts.

      On top of this, intergovernmental organisations with a Sahel-centred mandate such as the G5 Sahel and the LGA include climate action in their environmental or livelihood projects, but they continue to be seen primarily as security- and pastoralism-focused actors. Climate and environmental programmes lack visibility and funding, due to insufficient communication but also donors’ funding preferences. This creates a self reinforcing dynamic, as shown below:

      Graph G5 Sahel: low visibility and low funding cycle for climate action
      Figure 1: Graph G5 Sahel: low visibility and low funding cycle for climate action

      The limited awareness of the G5 Sahel and LGA’s climate projects is a missed opportunity for coordinating climate responses, because the two organisations work with remote, cross-border communities, which are most affected by climate change and conflict. Yet they are disregarded as partners for climate action by regional and international actors.

      In general, international actors do not coordinate much with regional organisations. Instead, they develop their own Sahel strategies and programmes, whose priorities don’t align with those of regional organisations. For instance, international donors generally don’t provide a lot of funding for G5 Sahel programmes that apply to all five Sahel countries, because they prefer investing more in certain countries.

      Lessons beyond COP26


      1. National, regional and international actors should include climate considerations in their security responses in the Central Sahel more systematically. This will require addressing the problem of silos and resources. It cannot be achieved without putting pressure on national governments to change the way they respond to conflict. Civil society organisations and youth activists are already doing this and should be supported. More robust data on replicable climate security responses in the Sahel is also key.

      2. COP26 must address the climate adaptation gap. International actors should respect their climate finance commitments, dedicate more of this finance to adaptation, and extend their project financing to at least five years.

      Sahelian governments should also mobilise more domestic funding for adaptation or use existing funding. Instead of seeing adaptation as a competing priority for budget allocation, governments can review their development programmes to ensure these produce more adaptation benefits. It is possible: under the AGIR initiative, Sahel countries integrated the resilience approach into their national and regional agricultural investment plans.

      3. International and regional actors in the Sahel must look at why their coordination efforts fail and how to reconcile conflicting priorities. COP26 is an opportunity for quick-starting these conversations, but these will need to continue beyond Glasgow.

      The recent IPCC report is again extremely alarming, and young people’s calls for climate action are so urgent. COP26 must bring a strong response. But beyond the conference being remembered, it’s what actually happens next that can save our planet from irreparable harm.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM. Photo courtesy of Gustave Deghilage via Flickr.

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