Sunday

7th Mar 2021

Opinion

The EU's urgent imperative in the Sahel

  • Nowhere is climate change being felt harder than in the Sahel, which is heating more quickly than any other region on our planet (Photo: European Commission)

As we enter 2021, the world faces unprecedented humanitarian emergencies. More than 235 million people are currently in need of humanitarian aid and more than 80 million are displaced from their homes.

The main driver of these crises is conflict – and, in particular, long-running, protracted conflict situations. Many of these have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic which risks reversing decades of hard-won progress to reduce poverty, hunger, disease and mortality rates.

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  • David Miliband: 'Current EU funding and programme models must be adapted to better facilitate partnerships with local women-led organisations' (Photo: Chatham House)

However, in 2021 it's clear that we need to shine an even brighter spotlight on another phenomenon which is drastically worsening the situation for billions across the globe: climate change.

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.

According to the UN, climate-related disasters have increased by more than 80 percent over the past four decades. This phenomenon will inevitably touch each of our lives, but its impacts are tragically unequal. People living in the world's least developed countries are ten times more likely to be affected by a climate disaster than those living in wealthy countries.

Given these inequalities, it's no surprise that many of the countries most vulnerable to climate change also feature on the IRC's Emergency Watchlist 2021.

Nowhere is climate change being felt harder than in the Sahel, which is heating more quickly than any other region on our planet.

Alarmingly, half of the countries on the Watchlist 2021 have at least a partial footprint on this 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.

In just three of these countries - Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali - 13.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, marking an increase of nearly 60 percent over the past 12 months. More than 1.5 million people in this region are now internally displaced, marking an increase of 320 percent since the start of 2019.

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.

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.

This will require an integrated response to these protracted crises.

In this context "integrated" means joining up short and longer term measures, linking economic and social measures, and local with regional action.

The EU can and must achieve this by increasing the availability of multi-annual, flexible humanitarian funding to prevent hunger and hardship in the short and medium term, while also strengthening climate adaptation and building resilience over the longer-term.

EU skewed priorities?

It's alarming that the EU is moving towards making development assistance – in the form of the new Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) - conditional on the cooperation of third countries with its own migration objectives. This risks skewing priorities and undermining progress.

Secondly, women and girls are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and climate chaos due to gender inequality - too often unable to access humanitarian assistance, legal and safe work, and education.

They also account for 80 percent of those displaced by climate change. However, women are absolutely integral to overcoming these crises in their roles as farmers, carers and activists.

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.

That means the EU and its member states must deploy their weighty influence to drive ambition in multilateral efforts to curb climate change including delivering on their pledges to cut carbon and encouraging other major emitters to adopt similarly ambitious targets ahead of COP26 next year.

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.

Climate-related disasters have cost 1.23 million lives and affected more than four million people over the past 20 years alone, say the UN.

Time is running out for billions more. As we enter a new decade, the international community has both a moral obligation and a strategic imperative to support the most vulnerable living through these crises.

Author bio

David Miliband is president of the International Rescue Committee and a former British foreign secretary.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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