Sahel region is 'canary in the coalmine' on climate, says UN official

Mark Lowcock criticises ‘totally inadequate’ effort to help Sahel countries adapt to global heating

Africa’s Sahel region is at the centre of accelerating climate change and “a canary in the coalmine of our warming planet”, the United Nation’s top humanitarian official has said.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said the Sahel was facing tragedy after an “alarming deterioration” in recent years that had led to tens of millions of people being displaced, rising extremist violence, massive violations of human rights and growing political instability.

Some of the record 13.4 million people who need humanitarian assistance across the border areas of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have been forced to leave their homes by unprecedented flooding across west and central Africa, underlining the threat that erratic weather caused by climate change poses to lives and livelihoods in the region.

Though extreme weather events are occurring elsewhere in the world, communities in the Sahel are much less resilient to changes resulting from climate change. Rapid population growth and traditional lifestyles reinforce the problem, Lowcock told the Guardian.

“It is very striking how bad the climate problem is,” he said. “There is a totally inadequate level of international effort in helping these countries adapt to climate change.”

On some projections the average daytime temperature in the Sahel is expected to rise by eight degrees by the end of the century. Traditional modes of agriculture are particularly vulnerable to shrinking resources such as grazing and water.

On Tuesday the UN, together with Denmark, Germany and the EU, will host a ministerial conference on the humanitarian situation in the central Sahel region.

“There is no disagreement about the underlying problems, but there has not been adequate action taken. Whenever world leaders gather, the Sahel tends to be eighth, ninth or tenth on the list of things to talk about, so it never gets the attention it deserves,” Lowcock said.

“Unless we change course and do more things and do them differently, the risks of a geniune global tragedy is going to mount. Problems brewing in the Sahel have contagion potential … and the risks to Europe are particularly transparent.”

On Friday the EU’s special envoy to the Sahel, Ángel Losada Fernández, described a “perfect storm” of crises in the region. Expert say these feed Islamist militancy.

Extremist violence in the Sahel surged after a coalition of Islamists and local separatist tribesmen took control of much of northern Mali in 2012. An eight-year campaign led by French troops, the deployment of hundreds of US special forces, massive aid for local militaries and $1bn-a-year UN peacekeeping operation have been unable to decisively weaken the multiple overlapping insurgencies in the region and security has continued to deteriorate.

Many of the bloodiest recent attacks have been attributed to an Isis affiliate, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Lowcock said groups were expanding their territory but a future without Islamist militancy in the region was possible to imagine. “This is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said.

The region has recently been rocked by renewed political upheaval, with the second coup in a decade unseating the elected government of Mali.

Flagship environmental projects have failed to make a significant impact. The Great Green Wall was conceived in 2007 by the African Union as a 4,350-mile (7,000km) cross-continental barrier stretching from Senegal to Djibouti that would hold back the deserts of the Sahara and Sahel. Its supporters said it would improve livelihoods in one of the world’s poorest regions, capture carbon dioxide and reduce conflict, terrorism and migration. So far only the project has covered only 4% of its target area, according to a recent status report.

In a report this year, the International Crisis Group said that if ongoing conflicts in the Sahel were attributed solely to climate change, there was a risk of underestimating the role of politics in the violence.


Jason Burke

The GuardianTramp

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