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17 September 2020

Sahel, Lake Chad Region Walking ‘Tightrope of Survival’ as Result of Environmental Degradation, Humanitarian Organization President Tells Security Council

It is starkly evident that people affected by conflict are also disproportionately impacted by climate shocks, the head of an international humanitarian organization told the Security Council in a 17 September videoconference meeting, calling for more in-depth policy reflections on the links between environmental degradation, climate risk, humanitarian needs, and peace and security.

In the face of the cumulative pressures of conflict, climate change and environmental degradation, communities in the Sahel and Lake Chad region “now walk on a tightrope of survival”, said Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which works  closely with the United Nations.

While some of the concerns reported by affected populations are fears of future disasters like rising desertification or displacement from extreme-weather events, people in the Sahel and Lake Chad are living the horrors today, he said, stressing that ICRC has, for decades now, incorporated environmental dimensions into its  humanitarian response.

Reporting on his recent visit to Niger and Burkina Faso, he said people there were displaced firstly because of conflict and violence, as well as violations of laws and principles.  But, they are also witnessing increasing tensions between communities because of changing rainfall patterns and scarcity of land for agriculturalists and pastoralists.  The same communities are hit with damaging floods and droughts.

ICRC’s focus today is two-fold, first, on providing humanitarian action that mitigates the impacts of conflict, helping build strong and resilient communities that can withstand environmental degradation and successive climate shocks.  The second area of focus is on the respect of international humanitarian law.  ICRC’s updated Guidelines on the Protection of the Natural Environment in Armed Conflict to be released next week will assist States and others to incorporate its rules in military manuals, as well as in national policy and legal frameworks to enhance the protection of the environment.

Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, said a large proportion of conflict is rooted in environmental matters.  In the Sahel region alone, violence often erupts over depleting land and water availability, with a combination of three factors exacerbating the situation:  heavy reliance on natural resources; climate change consequences; and a steady population increase.

Satisfying a growing demand of a population that relies essentially on resources that are being depleted at an alarming rate makes the situation unpredictable in the long run, compounded by weak governance and institutions alongside limited capacities for emergency responses.  Year after year, the vicious cycle spirals, he said, adding that:  “We must dig more deeply in order to address the root causes.”

While droughts have always existed, they occur more frequently and severely, now regularly affecting 70 nations, he continued.  In the last three years alone, more than 25 countries declared a national emergency due to drought.  Years of drought generally correspond to years of economic downturn for many countries whose economies essentially depend on the primary sector.

As most of the world’s population relies on ecosystem services rooted in soils, the health of land catalyses the impact of environmental degradation on peace, security and stability, he noted.  Yet, capacities to assess and address the security risks driven by environmental degradation and climate change are not keeping pace with the speed with which the “risk landscape” is changing.

Highlighting the difficulty of mobilizing societies against a threat whose costly consequences may not be felt until it is too late to prevent them, he called for greater investment in maintaining the Earth’s life-supporting ecosystems generating water, food and clean air.  “Our environment needs our help,” he said, adding that, if resources were better managed, many conflicts could be avoided.

Inna Modja, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification Land Ambassador and singer, said that she was born and raised in Mali and Ghana.  “I carry within me a great responsibility and a lot of love for this region which is very vulnerable,” she said, noting that, during her journey from the West to the East of the Sahel, she met people in the rural communities, realizing how urgent it is to find solutions to the consequences of desertification and climate change and the impact this can have on security and peace.

“My wish is to bring the African dream back to the continent, offering opportunities and a concrete future to this youth that constitutes more than 50 per cent of the Sahel,” she said.  Youth and women can become major actors of change if they are given the necessary support, she added.

Referring to the “Great Green Wall” initiative launched by the African Union, with the aim of building a 15 kilometre‑wide, 8,000 kilometre‑long stretch of trees and other vegetation from Mauritania to Sudan, she said such projects will be a solution to multiple problems, such as forced migration, instability and conflict in the Sahel.

In the ensuing discussion, Kalla Ankourao, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Cooperation, African Integration and Nigeriens Abroad of Niger, Council President for September, spoke in his national capacity, underscoring that all regions of the world are experiencing the effects of climate change in varying proportions, but Africa has been hard hit and responses have been timid.  In the Sahelian region and the Lake Chad Basin, marked by great fragility and exponential population growth, climatic shocks prevail alongside grave security concerns.  In a region where the majority of the population lives from agriculture, the predicted 2°C increase by 2050 could lead to a 15 to 20 per cent reduction in food production.  Meanwhile, the escalation of violence in the Sahelian strip and the Lake Chad Basin has led to an increase in the number of displaced persons throughout the region, in which one in four people in the Sahel live in conflict zones and 4.5 million are either internally displaced or refugees.  This represents almost three times the number in 2012.  This “double shock” echoes warnings by agencies working on the ground, he said, adding that climate change and conflict dynamics create a “feedback loop”, whereby the environment-related impacts create additional pressures, while conflict undermines the capacity of communities to cope.

Raising several concerns, he said no implementation of environmental restoration projects is possible in areas emptied of their populations due to terrorist attacks and insecurity, leading to further degradation, he said, emphasizing that:  “the climate-security-development nexus is indisputable”.  As such, handling this effectively requires policies adapted to these new challenges, and taking climate change into account requires a more global and concerted approach.  The fight will require a change of behaviour that will emphasize a change of mentality.  The Security Council’s task is to resolve conflicts and prevent them, with understanding the causes, effects and complexities of climate change, especially in conflict zones, being essential.  The international community must guarantee respect for humanitarian law to enable the delivery of aid to millions made vulnerable by the triple impact of conflicts, the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of climate change.  Combating the humanitarian effects of environmental degradation on peace and security is a multidimensional struggle, integrating the protection and recovery of land, the rational management of natural resources and the creation of the bases for sustainable development, which, by meeting the needs of populations, also protects them from the propaganda of terrorist groups.  Niger is committed to work for any regional or international initiative that would provide strong responses to the problems related to environmental degradation and its impact on peace and security.

Louis Straker, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Commerce of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, emphasized that the scale of human suffering wrought by climate change and its attendant hazards demands firm political will and decisive collective action to address it.  The increased presence of risk multipliers, such as hate speech and disinformation, serves to further compound the already challenging situation as intercommunal tensions are aroused, political polarization is fomented and trust in public institutions is eroded thereby impairing governance capacities.  To effectively address these multidimensional challenges, an integrated and coherent approach that leverages the technical capacities of all United Nations organs and specialized agencies is needed.

The three international conventions concerning biodiversity, desertification and land degradation, and climate change are a composite and integrated whole for which Saint Vincent and the Grenadines reiterates its unwavering support, he said.  Calling for the delivery of capacity-building initiatives to improve land tenure and strengthen environmental governance as a means of building resilience in environmentally vulnerable and conflict-affected countries, he also urged the international community to integrate environmentally sensitive strategies across the peace security, development and humanitarian nexus.

Tariq Ahmad, Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom, said the time to act is now.  For its part, the United Kingdom has provided $14 billion of international climate finance over five years, with much going to building resilience.  If the Council is to support States, climate resilience must be considered from a security perspective.  The United Nations system must include climate risk as an element in its peacebuilding and peacekeeping work.  Women and girls, who suffer disproportionately from conflict, need to be involved in processes to address these risks.  Climate‑related security threats are real, immediate and profoundly undemocratic and must be addressed, with the Council being the ideal vehicle for action.

France’s representative said his delegation supports several Sahelian non‑governmental organizations at the forefront, including the Great Green Wall.  Citing a decade-old European Union and United Nations partnership to build capacity in conflict prevention and land and natural resource management, he said more must be done, especially since 2,500 conflicts are linked to fossil fuels, water, food and land with already terrible humanitarian consequences that will only worsen.  As such, the Security Council must react in time, he said, asking the Secretary-General to present every two years an assessment of the risks to international peace and security posed by the impacts of climate change in all regions of the world.  The case of the Safer oil tanker in Yemen demonstrates the seriousness and urgency of the problem.  In addition, climate and environmental issues must be integrated into interventions by armed and security forces.  Taking climate and environmental refugees into account is a global challenge that requires considerable coordination efforts, he said, adding that protecting the environment requires the full investment of all and greater international cooperation because reconstruction and lasting peace depend on it.

The delegate of the United States said the exploitation of natural resources frequently becomes the centre of conflict and prolongs it, with too many examples to point to, including Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) seizure of oil production facilities and poisoning land and water, armed groups poaching on protected land in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and illegal mining and deforestation in Colombia.  Even after a conflict ends, these and similar actions persist, in environmental damages and economic losses.  In 2018, the United States addressed wildlife trafficking involving the Lord’s Resistance Army, disrupting operations, strengthening management of natural parks and greatly reducing attacks on villages.  The United States has been working with Viet Nam to clean up Agent Orange contamination, used during the Viet Nam War, he said, underlining the importance of tackling environmental threats, including addressing the case of the Safer oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.

Belgium’s representative said that some believe that the Council is not the best forum to discuss climate change.  But, Belgium believes it is appropriate to do so.  The Lake Chad region is a symbolic case, where the interaction of climate change and armed conflict is undermining sustainable development, creating a long‑term humanitarian catastrophe and nurturing extremist movements that capitalize on weak governance.  “The links between climate and conflict are already today an appalling reality for these populations,” he said.  Noting that most of official development assistance (ODA) in fragile countries and half of the aid to extremely fragile countries is of humanitarian nature, he pointed out that it acts only as a “fire extinguisher”, not adding to conflict prevention.  Belgium’s humanitarian department launched a four-year project aimed at youth resilience in the Lake Chad region.  It does not help to teach youth how to fish when there is no lake left to fish in.  Belgium has worked to mainstream climate‑related security risks into relevant Council mandates.  A climate and security angle should be incorporated throughout the entire cycle of conflict.  It is important that climate risk assessments are available to the Council, he said, underscoring the role of the Climate Security Mechanism and academia.

Estonia’s representative recalled that the significance of the link between climate change and peace and security was first addressed in 2007 in the Security Council under the aegis of the United Kingdom, and today it is more relevant than ever.  To understand the consequences of climate change in armed conflicts, as in the Sahel region, data is a fundamental prerequisite, he said, calling for the better collection and quality of information to allow for both better risk assessment and management.  Also, it will enable a systematic approach to include climate-related security risks into the work of the Council.  As comprehensive national, regional and international collaboration is needed to effectively respond to security threats posed by climate change in the Lake Chad Basin region, so is a strengthened coordination and integration within the United Nations, its agencies and missions.

Indonesia’s representative emphasized the importance of enhancing partnership and information-sharing as it is impossible to address complex climate-related challenges alone.  It is vital to tackle the root causes of conflict and find suitable and tailored solutions.  Mainstreaming climate risk into the entire peace continuum and the synergy across the United Nations system is also crucial, he said, emphasizing that review of Organization’s peacebuilding architecture should not shy away from discussing climate change.  His delegation notes the role of regional organizations, such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in addressing fragile political situations.  The principle of African solutions to African issues must be supported by the international community.

The Russian Federation’s representative reiterated his delegation’s doubts that the Security Council is a platform for a generic environment-related debate.  There is no automatic link between environmental issues and conflict, and no conclusive, universally recognized and scientifically substantiated evidence that climate change has an impact on armed conflicts.  While socioeconomic conditions may worsen in individual countries and subregions, security and stability are often affected by more direct causes, such as external interference in Member States’ domestic affairs, abuse or even generation of conflict situations for the purpose of exploiting natural resources without the consent of host Governments, which not all Council members are inclined to discuss.  It is not only contradictory to the international law, but also fraught with environmental disasters, he said, adding the many examples of this exist in Africa and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, his counterpart from the United States forgot to mention the example of the occupation of Syria’s oil fields, which is fraught with an ecological disaster in the north-east of the country, he said.  Consideration of environmental aspects alone may, therefore, be selective and ignore the broader context, including unilateral coercive measures not sanctioned by the Council, which undermine nations’ capacities to achieve development goals and address climate change.  The United Nations development system and resident coordinators are tasked with helping countries to undertake sustainable development efforts, and donors should honour their commitments.  As such, it is paramount that the Council concentrates its efforts on the fulfilment of its core function — the maintenance of international peace and security — based on the Charter of the United Nations, he said, adding that:  “If this is addressed, it will certainly contribute to the protection of environment.”

China’s delegate said there is no direct link between environmental issues and peace and security.  As security implications of environmental degradation differ from country to country and region to region, a country-specific approach is needed to identify the root causes of conflict, evaluate the environmental aspect of the security consequences and work towards a targeted solution.  The Council should effectively implement its primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security.  Acknowledging the importance of implementing the 2030 Agenda, he said climate change is a development issue.  Emphasizing that commitments to multilateral agreements must be honoured, he said that, if climate change has security implications, then implementing the Paris Agreement and other related consensus affects the environment and international peace and security.

As such, all countries should reinvigorate multilateralism, and fulfil the obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, and developed countries should honour commitments to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, he said.  The international community should also support the initiative of African countries to resolve their own issues, he said, noting that the continent hosts two thirds of the world’s population and makes up two thirds of the Council’s agenda.  Efforts should also focus on strengthening African nations’ capacities to address the potential security risks of climate change and environmental issues.  For its part, China stands firm in pursuing green, low-carbon and sustainable development, fulfilling obligations under United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change commitments and the Paris Agreement, having met climate targets for 2020 two years early.  Citing examples of further progress, he said China is advancing the development of a green Silk Road.

Germany’s representative stressed the need for the Council to discuss possible consequences of climate change and environmental degradation on peace and security.  In 2019 alone, Germany, Dominican Republic, Tunisia and France put this subject on the Council agenda during their respective presidency.  Briefers after briefers, speakers after speakers highlighted the clear nexus between climate change, environmental degradation and peace and security.  It’s not a country‑specific phenomenon.  It is a global one.  Climate change is affecting not just Africa, but other places, like Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States, which has been stricken by the highest number of hurricanes and record-breaking wildfires.  Climate change hit the most vulnerable hardest — women, children and countries with weak infrastructure.  Ten Council members have launched an initiative to have the 15‑member organ assume its responsibility to address this clear threat to international peace and security.  It’s a pity that the United States, Russian Federation and China don’t support this.  China’s delegate spoke how much his country cares about Africa, but it is the Council President, Niger, an African country, that highlighted the links between climate change and peace and security.

The Dominican Republic’s representative, recognizing that the Council is faced with the challenge of considering an unconventional threat to international peace and security, said that, given the continued deterioration of the environment, it is evident that new, natural enemies have become more frequent, disproportionate and fierce, positioning themselves as permanent, violent fronts for millions of people.  Of the 20 countries at the top of the list of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, 60 per cent are currently in fragile and violent situations, and in many cases, climate shocks can lead to development reversals and systemic breakdown in essential services.  Far too often, conflicts themselves harm the environment and essential civilian infrastructure, violating international humanitarian law.  At the same time, during a conflict, adaptation to overcome the immediate effects of climate change becomes less of a priority than the security.  Climate change and environmental degradation are major security risk factors, making it a priority for this Council to join efforts with other relevant United Nations organs to effectively address all dimensions of the climate crisis in a holistic, mutually reinforcing way.  As the world is currently experiencing a global health crisis, he said the COVID-19 pandemic creates new and unexpected circumstances to be considered when evaluating possible mechanisms to prevent conflicts in the face of non-conventional threats.  As such, there is a critical need to join forces to address the adverse effects of climate change on international peace and security in the work of the Council.

Tunisia’s representative said the climate change and security nexus has become more obvious and increasingly recognized at the international level and should be considered further by this Council, as the effects of climate change increasingly interact with root causes of conflicts and act as risk multipliers.  In addition, there is a need to pursue an integrated and systematic approach to climate-related security risks, to enable appropriate responses by the Council, and a need to integrate long-term climate risk factors into the assessment and management of threats to peace and security, at the national, regional and international levels.  It is also necessary to develop forecasting tools and early warning systems in addition to strengthening the United Nations system database with scientific data and relevant knowledge.  Tunisia, as a member of the like‑minded group on climate and security, wishes to reiterate that these issues need to remain on the Council’s agenda and require to be discussed more in depth.

South Africa’s representative pointed to the need to better understand the impact of effective environmental governance and policy, and whether this may influence the reduction of conflict and help bring about peace and security.  Drought, water scarcity, food insecurity and desertification, which are thought to be caused or exacerbated by climate change, increase the risk of violent conflicts.  In Africa, there is evidence to suggest that this is the case in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, as well as the Horn of Africa.  His country fully supports a multilateral approach to climate change, premised on the guiding principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which include equity, differentiation of actions required between developed and developing countries and the provision of support to all developing States that require it.

Viet Nam’s representative emphasized the importance of consolidating international cooperation, with special attention to countries in conflict or post-conflict situations, countries in humanitarian need, least developed countries and small island developing States, as they are particularly prone to the adverse effects of climate change but often lag behind in response capacity.  Climate resilience can and should be integrated in humanitarian, conflict‑prevention, peacebuilding and post-conflict strategies, he said, welcoming the progress the Council has made in recognizing the adverse effects of climate change in 13 country-specific resolutions.  Noting that 8 out of the 10 largest peace operations are deployed in countries with high exposure to climate change, he said the Council must base its deliberation and actions on science and ample evidence and tailor its approach to the conflict affected States.  The Council’s response to climate change needs to be coordinated with other parts of the United Nations systems and all its partners.  The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has set the strengthening of human and institutional capacity in implementing climate change adaptation and mitigation as one strategic measure of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025.  Cooperation between the United Nation and ASEAN in this regard can be further explored.

For information media. Not an official record.