Climate Insecurity: Undermining Rural Livelihoods in Niger

17 March 2021   ·   Stefanie Wesch, Janna Rheinbay

Nigerien farmers and pastoralists are particularly exposed to security threats reinforced by climate impacts, making them vulnerable to food insecurity and recruitment through extremist groups. To reduce these risks, Germany should expand its support for participatory methods and climate adaptation measures geared towards marginalized groups and bolster early warning systems.

Ethnic violence and extremist militancy have taken hold of the Sahel in recent years. While Mali has grappled with this development throughout the past decade, ethnic tensions have grown and unrest has spread to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Underlying grievances related to socio-economic marginalization provide a fertile ground for recruitment to extremist groups, off-springs of the “Islamic State (IS)”.

While many of the typical conflict drivers, such as ethnic fragmentation, poverty, and overpopulation, are at play in Niger’s current security predicament, climate impacts are another factor aggravating existing tensions. Affected by food insecurity and ever-diminishing livelihood opportunities, farmers and pastoralists are the first to feel these impacts.

Climate Impacts Threaten Rural Livelihoods – and Pastoralists’ Ethnic Identity

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Sahel region will experience ever-shorter rainy seasons and more extreme weather events, observable through a higher occurrence of both floods and drought. Recent research by PIK scientists has shown that the hottest parts of Niger are expected to see a total of 300 days above 35 °C by 2080. Rising temperatures can lead to heat stress and health risks for workers, especially in very exposed sectors like agriculture and construction. Moreover, increasing drought and flood patterns adversely impact both sectors. While nomadic pastoralism has served as a viable option for the local climatic circumstances, changing patterns of precipitation challenge the transhumance, the seasonal migration of herders along with their cattle.

These climate impacts present a threat to nomadic pastoralists’ ethnic identity which is closely tied to their livelihoods as herders. They are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts, as they follow the seasonal rain on their transhumance, which brings them in contact with local farmers and other pastoralists. Along the transhumance, relations with farmers of different ethnic groups bear potential for both cooperation and conflict over access to land, water, and pasture needed for grazing. The changing and thus uncertain nature of rainy seasons in the Sahel can damage established relationships between these two groups sharing the same space.

Extremist Groups Target Marginalized People

The International Crisis Group reports that in Niger as well as neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, pastoralists are inextricably linked to recent instability. Aggravating factors are instances of cattle theft among different pastoral groups, conflicts between farmers and herders over land, water, and crops, as well as military abuse towards nomadic pastoralists. A lack of access to justice for pastoralists and impunity for the military in cases of abuse further contribute to marginalization and discrimination.

The sense of oppression along with increasing environmental pressure presents a fertile breeding ground for recruitment by extremists. Presenting itself as a governance competitor for the state, the IS poses a security threat to Niger and challenges current governance structures. Marginalized groups have been particularly vulnerable to recruitment efforts, chief among them cattle herders who have extensive knowledge of the geography of the region due to their livelihoods as nomads. Within this context of state-based discrimination, extremist organizations exploit the existing resentment against the government, religious clergy, and other ethnic groups. They may even offer safety in light of abuse committed by security forces against marginalized minorities.

To mitigate this risk, national ministries, International Governmental Organizations, and donors should focus on decreasing existing and anticipated effects of climate change that undermine nomadic pastoralists and farmers. Considering Niger’s current state of security and its low adaptive capacity, the region is considered a hotspot for the future development of climate-induced conflict. The German government should monitor it closely and reinforce and expand climate adaptation measures in the following ways:

1. Mainstream Climate Adaptation in International Cooperation Projects

The climate change-conflict nexus will likely capture policy makers’ attention as climate change impacts are becoming increasingly observable. In order to reduce risks for rural livelihoods, capacity building efforts in the international development sphere should focus on climate adaptation. As crucial donors, German actors such as the Federal Foreign Office, the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Ministry of Defense should aim to increase adaptive capacities in at-risk countries, paying special attention to the needs of marginalized populations such as pastoralists.

2. Ensure Information Dissemination and Participatory Approaches

Reaching out to farmers and pastoralists is critical for successfully implementing adaptation efforts. Extension services, usually run by the Ministry of Agriculture and local NGOs, should thus focus on communicating and disseminating information on climate impacts and adaptation to farmers and pastoralists. Adaptation strategies should include local customs and indigenous knowledge. A participatory approach when developing adaptation measures can help with ownership and successful implementation.

3. Use Index-Based Weather Insurances and Early Warning Systems

Given Niger’s dependence on the agricultural sector, adaptation measures should include improved capacities for water management, like rainwater harvesting and irrigation systems, as well as improved methods for yield storage. Access to enhanced meteorological services can also help identify windows of opportunity for sowing or undertaking the transhumance. Early warning systems for yield forecasts and food security can be an effective tool to mitigate risks to rural communities' livelihoods. Moreover, index-based weather insurances can counter yield loss caused by extreme weather events.

4. Support the UN’s Adaptation Measures for Pastoralists’ Livelihoods

The German government should support approaches that aim to improve pastoralists’ livelihoods. This should include identifying and enforcing transhumance routes and securing access to fodder and watering spots along the way. IOM’s newly developed Transhumance Tracking Tool, for example, provides insights into the location and number of herders, marking bottlenecks and potential for conflict. The tool could already prove useful under COVID-19 travel restrictions in identifying stranded pastoralists at closed borders around the Sahel.

A 2020 report by the UN Department of Peace Operations elaborates on the potential for Peacekeeping in the context of the transhumance and intercommunal peace. Vital infrastructure such as watering stations and grazing spaces could be secured by UN peacekeeping operations. Trust among the local population towards national security forces in Niger, and the Sahel in general, have been strained by widespread accusations of abuse towards civilians. Future research should investigate to what extent Blue Helmets may contribute to improving intra- and intercommunal relations in the context of threatened rural livelihoods.

5. Rethink Preventative Measures of Regional Human Mobility

Furthermore, German policy-makers should consider long-term regional effects when trying to curb West and North African human mobility. Measures to prevent regional migration can produce adverse consequences concerning local livelihoods and may even do more harm than good, especially in light of existing grievances, conflict, and political extremism in the greater Sahel. The projected rise in extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, and floods drastically increases the pressure on agricultural livelihoods. Climate change can further polarize social groups along ethnic, political, and economic cleavages. The resulting potential for violent conflict and extremism makes climate adaptation measures all the more urgent. Ultimately, climate adaptation has to be a central element of both international security and development cooperation to prevent or transform violent conflict and extremism in fragile regions.

Early Action Extremismus Climate

Stefanie Wesch

Stefanie Wesch is a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). She has undertaken fieldwork in Niger and Burkina Faso on the relationship between climate change, conflict, and migration. @stefaniewesch

Janna Rheinbay

Janna Rheinbay is a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) where she focuses on the climate-conflict nexus in the Sahel. @JRheinbay