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Climate Change, Water, and Conflict in the Niger River Basin

New research on the Niger River Basin finds that the effects of climate change in the region are pervasive and that “latent conflict” between groups – though not physical violence – is common.

Date & Time

Nov. 17, 2011
9:00am – 11:00am ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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New research on the Niger River Basin finds that the effects of climate change in the region are pervasive and that “latent conflict” between groups – disagreements and disputes over damage to farmland and restricted access to water, but not physical violence – is common.

“You’ve got vulnerable people, vulnerable households, vulnerable communities living within… fragile systems, governance systems, [and] environmental systems,” said Phil VernonInternational Alert’s director of programs for Africa and peacebuilding issues, at “Climate Change, Water, and Conflict in the Niger River Basin,” an event hosted by the Wilson Center on November 17.

Together with his colleague Lulsegged Abebe and Marisa Goulden of the University of Anglia, Vernon examined how communities in MaliNigeria, and Niger have been impacted by climate change, how they have adapted to those impacts, and whether these changes spurred conflict.

Competition Over Dwindling Resources

Climate change destabilizes communities by adding uncertainty and stress, Vernon said, and when a community is already vulnerable, the impacts of those uncertainties and stresses are amplified and the potential for conflict is greater. In every community examined in the study, climate-induced vulnerability led to some kind of conflict. More often than not, however, that conflict took the form of disagreements, or “latent conflict,” rather than violent conflict – a reason for optimism in the face of dire predictions that an era of climate wars is upon us. 

Throughout the basin, river flows and rainfall have been decreasing since the 1970s, said Goulden, creating tension between two of the major communities living in the basin – farmers and pastoralists. Pastoralists are forced to travel farther to bring their herds to water, while farmers are expanding their cropland to feed growing populations, reducing the pathways available to herders and their livestock.

Unfortunately, poor policy decisions have made tensions worse in some places. In Lokoja, Nigeria, for example, the government began dredging the Niger River in 2009 to improve commercial shipping. Officials said the dredging would reduce flooding, but in 2010, farmers suffered immensely from floods. The government’s false promises increased the farmers’ vulnerability, said Goulden, because, expecting to be protected from flooding, they were not adequately prepared, making the damage worse. 

As a result, farmers are now building homes and developing cropland further away from the river, reducing land available to pastoralists and increasing the potential for conflict between the two communities.

Increased Resilience Is a “No-Brainer”

Climate in the Niger River Basin is marked by a high degree of variability – rainfall, river flows, and temperature already fluctuate a great deal and could become even more variable in the future, said Goulden. 

That uncertainty has important implications for how people think about responding to climate change, said Abebe. “Development and adaptation policies must be flexible enough to cope with extreme variability both in the wetter and the dry conditions in the Niger River Basin,” he said.

Boosting resilience will be key to ensuring that vulnerable communities have the flexibility they need to respond to future crises, Vernon said. 

“If the interaction of stress and vulnerability is the problem…it’s somewhat of a no-brainer that increased resilience is part of the answer,” said Vernon. And decisions on how to increase resilience “should be made at the lowest appropriate level…from high policy down to household and individual decisions.” 

Different People, Different Levels of Resilience

Vernon’s emphasis on making decisions at the “lowest appropriate level” reflects the reality that various communities – and individual community members – experience climate change in different ways. Fostering adaptation strategies that take these variations into consideration will be an essential strategy for avoiding climate-driven conflict in the future.

In Mali, the Niger River flooded downstream of the Selingué Dam in 2001 and 2010, and in each case, researchers found divergent responses to the crises. 

In the lead-up to the 2001 flood, dam operators had been intentionally keeping reservoir levels high in anticipation of increased demand for hydroelectric power during an upcoming soccer championship match. When heavy rains hit the area, though, the operators were forced to release huge amounts of water over a short period of time, causing massive flooding downstream. 

In the flood’s aftermath, downstream farmers were able to successfully sue the power company for their losses, but downstream pastoralists had no comparable option. The pastoralists were therefore more vulnerable to the flood’s long-term impacts. 

Responses differed within communities as well, often breaking down along gender lines. In 2010, when floods hit Mali again, men “were trying to help people move away from the flood water, and then afterward with rebuilding of homes,” said Goulden, “whilst women are concerned with finding shelter, cooking, and caring for the sick, elderly, and children.”

No “Massive Risk of Violence” in the Near Future

Policymakers are left with an urgent crisis – climate change – and a solution that is inherently time-intensive: building resilience in vulnerable communities down to the individual level, said Vernon. 

“There is a risk of undermining the elements of resilience which exist already in responding too rapidly and too urgently based on the anxieties we have to the problem of climate change and insecurity,” he cautioned.

Fortunately, although the threat of climate change is urgent, Vernon said that the risk of that threat spilling over into violent conflict is still a long way off. “I think policymakers have got to be thinking about where might this lead,” he said, “but at the moment, in terms of this research, there was no evidence that there’s a massive risk of violence happening any time soon.”

Sources: AlertNet, BBC, International Alert.

Drafted by Kate Diamond and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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