Refugee workers in the Sahel region where thousands of Malian refugees are fleeing violence in their country said this week they are witnessing firsthand the knotted challenges of food security, climate change and conflict in Africa.
Alice Thomas, climate displacement manager for Refugees International, said tens of thousands of destitute Malians are pouring into countries already hit hard by starvation, lack of water and crop failures. Speaking from Dakar, Senegal, after two weeks assessing camps in Niger and Burkina Faso, Thomas said communities have opened up their villages to Malian refugees.
But, she and others worried, it could be just a matter of time before the stress from thousands of newcomers -- and their livestock -- reaches a breaking point.
"When the refugees started coming to Niger in early January, they wanted to stay with the local communities, and the local communities opened their doors. People have so little in terms of food, and they shared what they had. They look at these people as brothers," Thomas said.
But she noted that the Sahel is heading into the lean season. A recent study conducted by a group of aid organizations found 70 to 90 percent of people in western and eastern Niger estimate their food stocks will run out before the next harvest.
Meanwhile, the political crisis in Mali shows no sign of ebbing. A particular point of tension, Thomas worried, is the U.N. agencies that are set up to ensure that refugee camps' food and water needs are met. No such infrastructure exists for the suffering surrounding villages.
"There is a lot of concern about whether the long-term presence, combined with lack of water and pastureland, are going to cause tension," Thomas said. "Are you going to see local communities getting less patient with the resources being spent on refugees?"
Changes loom 'outside the bounds of' normal experience
According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, more than 300,000 people have fled Mali since fighting erupted in the north in January between a Tuareg rebel movement and Malian government forces. Burkina Faso has accepted about 61,000 refugees; in Niger there are 41,000; and in Mauritania, 64,000. Meanwhile, the Algerian government has reported that about 30,000 Malian refugees have crossed into the country.
Security experts who study the region say the Sahel is at ground zero of the confluence between climate change and conflict.
Joshua Busby is an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas and one of the lead researchers in the Strauss Center project on Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS), a $7.6 million grant funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.
He noted that scientific models suggest the Sahel will have an additional 76 to 100 "heat wave days" -- that is three days in a row above 41 degrees Celsius (105.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by the middle of the century. Parts of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, meanwhile, could see 21 consecutive days of less than 1 millimeter of rainfall.
"These are very dry areas already, and people who are marginal farmers depending on rain-fed agriculture or pastoralists are kind of living on the knife's edge of survival already," Busby said. When coupled with existential challenges like a secessionist movement splitting a country in half, as is happening in Mali, environmental challenges take on heightened worries.
"I think we need to reassess our understanding of political volatility in this part of the world," Busby said. "We're going to start seeing physical changes outside the bounds of normal human experience in a region that has already experienced quite a lot of variance in weather. What that means on top of more critical instabilities are unknown, and I think it gives us some pause about how we extrapolate about the past patterns for the future."
When regions reach a 'breaking point'
Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a lead author of a recent study examining the links among climate change, migration and conflict in northwest Africa, said the scenario that aid workers such as Thomas fear, of local communities growing weary of refugees, is a real one. Patterns of refugee crises exist in many parts of the world of countries starting off accepting their neighbors with a solidarity that eventually gives way to frustration, he said.
"Even in a country like Turkey where there are a lot of Syrian refugees in a country that is fairly well off and well-organized, patience wears thin," he said. "Then, if you have a political situation, it just takes one conflict or one crime of opportunity to have a situation in which people take political advantage and lobby against the refugees."
In northwest Africa, where what Werz has called an "arc of tension" runs through Nigeria, Niger, Algeria and Morocco, he said the projected massive population growth combined with small-onset changes brought about by climate change -- like sea-level rise along the Niger Delta, the loss of hundreds of villages through desertification and the virtual disappearance of Lake Chad -- is bad enough.
Add to that neighboring countries like Algeria, and now Mali, that have an influx of weapons and established al-Qaida structures, he said, "and you have different pressure points that, if they come together at any given time or in any given region compounded by migratory flows, exacerbate problems to a degree that can be to the breaking point."
Werz called for a comprehensive strategy that includes diplomatic measures, short-term and long-term development policies "and a strategy that doesn't shy away from looking at the security dimension," something he said "we just don't have at this moment."
Meanwhile, Thomas said, aid workers want to see more resources put into the Sahel region, which is on the brink of its third major food shortage in seven years. In a region where 80 percent of the population relies on natural resources, conflicts can easily turn droughts into famines. Meanwhile, she said, food insecurity exacerbates conflicts and governments need to start thinking long-term.
"There needs to be a lot more focus on long-term development assistance in this part of the world," she said. "It's very obvious that the main way the U.S. and the E.U. have been operating in the region is though humanitarian response." But she added, "As these emergencies are coming closer and closer together, it becomes more and more important that you can build resilience that is actually effective."