Ex-UK Foreign Secretary: The EU’s Urgent Imperative in the Sahel

Written by | Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

As we enter 2021, the world faces unprecedented humanitarian emergencies, whose main driver is conflict – and, in particular, long-running, protracted conflict situations. However, in 2021 it’s clear that another phenomenon will be drastically worsening the situation for billions across the globe: climate change. „Nowhere is climate change being felt harder than in the Sahel, which is heating more quickly than any other region on our planet,“ warns David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and now the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), in an opinion piece recently published in EUobserver.
Many of these conflicts around the world have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which risks reversing decades of hard-won progress to reduce poverty, hunger, disease and mortality rates. More than 235 million people are currently in need of humanitarian aid and more than 80 million are displaced from their homes. The IRC’s Emergency Watchlist 2021 highlights the 20 countries at greatest risk of a major new, or significantly worsened, humanitarian crisis over the year ahead. It finds that climate change is a threat multiplier. It is increasing the frequency and severity of natural shocks such as earthquakes, droughts and flooding, while making populations more vulnerable to diseases like malaria and dengue. It is exacerbating food insecurity, undermining livelihoods, displacing people from their homes, tipping vast regions of our planet into famine and – at times – sparking conflict over resources. It is also a driver of movement in its own right, whether through displacement or migration.
Alarmingly, half of the countries on the Watchlist 2021 have at least a partial footprint on Sahel, a large area in northern Africa: Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan and Sudan. This part of the world has suffered from chronic food shortages due to recurrent droughts, unreliable rainfall, land degradation and desertification since the 1970s. Today climate change continues to worsen hunger and malnutrition levels across the fragile region, increasing peoples’ susceptibility to disease and epidemics and exacerbating the horrific economic and security crises they face. As we enter a new decade, it’s clear that these states will continue to face a perfect storm of conflict, COVID-19 and climate change. Thus, as a leader on the global stage, the European Union has a key role to play in ensuring that populations in fragile and conflict affected states such as those in the Sahel are not left behind. Here are three steps they must take to prevent the region from spiraling even further into climate-related crisis.
Firstly, the EU and broader international community have far too often approached the Sahel with a military or migration lens, leading to overly-securitised responses. The EU must re-balance its investments in the Sahel region with greater prioritisation of humanitarian needs, including climate-related crises. Secondly, women and girls are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and climate chaos due to gender inequality. Current EU funding and programme models must be adapted to better facilitate partnerships with local women-led organisations, helping them tear down the barriers they face in accessing essential resources, finances and leadership. A feminist approach is a necessity and a strategy not a slogan. Thirdly, it’s clear that the triple threat of conflict, climate and COVID-19 requires coordinated, international responses given the global nature of these challenges and the weak response capacity in many of the most affected states. They must also work multilaterally to strengthen local-level resilience to future climate shocks and ensure protections for those displaced or otherwise on the move as a result.

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