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Climate Threats Are Multiplying in the Horn of Africa

In a long overdue step, the U.N. Security Council may finally address climate security.

By , a principal at the SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute.
A Somali mother and child walk through the Kobe refugee camp near the Ethiopian-Somali border on July 19, 2011.
A Somali mother and child walk through the Kobe refugee camp near the Ethiopian-Somali border on July 19, 2011.
A Somali mother and child walk through the Kobe refugee camp near the Ethiopian-Somali border on July 19, 2011. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

Jutting out from the second-largest continent, the Horn of Africa is one of the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change. The four countries on the peninsula—Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia—are warming more quickly than the global average, with dangerous implications for unrest and conflict within and across their borders. Weather in the Horn is also confounding forecasters. Torrential rains give way to torrid dry spells, triggering catastrophic droughts, record-breaking floods, and biblical swarms of desert locusts.

More than climate anomalies, these gathering menaces have become what some experts call “threat multipliers”—roiling politics, upending markets, and menacing social stability in what is already one of the most fragile patches on earth. Sudden hot spells and intense rainfalls can paralyze agricultural and livestock production, disrupt fishing ecosystems, and deepen tensions between rival communities already on the precipice of collapse. According to some researchers, a 0.5 degrees Celsius increase in local temperatures is associated with a 10 to 20 percent increase in the risk of conflict. With around 80 percent of the region’s population depending on subsistence farming and herding to survive, minor setbacks can push villages headlong into hunger and malnutrition.

Climate change is already disrupting the livelihoods of millions of people who farm and herd in the Horn, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. It is driving people from their homes, with rebels including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Ethiopia and predatory armed groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia profiting from instability to expand their power and influence. The cascading risks of food insecurity, forced migration, and organized violence are growing more urgent, putting relief agencies and development organizations on high alert. Although they fall below the threshold of armed conflict, these tensions are generating severe humanitarian need. Rapid urbanization, competition over dwindling pasture and arable land, and the absence of government services are adding to the burden.

Jutting out from the second-largest continent, the Horn of Africa is one of the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change. The four countries on the peninsula—Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia—are warming more quickly than the global average, with dangerous implications for unrest and conflict within and across their borders. Weather in the Horn is also confounding forecasters. Torrential rains give way to torrid dry spells, triggering catastrophic droughts, record-breaking floods, and biblical swarms of desert locusts.

More than climate anomalies, these gathering menaces have become what some experts call “threat multipliers”—roiling politics, upending markets, and menacing social stability in what is already one of the most fragile patches on earth. Sudden hot spells and intense rainfalls can paralyze agricultural and livestock production, disrupt fishing ecosystems, and deepen tensions between rival communities already on the precipice of collapse. According to some researchers, a 0.5 degrees Celsius increase in local temperatures is associated with a 10 to 20 percent increase in the risk of conflict. With around 80 percent of the region’s population depending on subsistence farming and herding to survive, minor setbacks can push villages headlong into hunger and malnutrition.

Climate change is already disrupting the livelihoods of millions of people who farm and herd in the Horn, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. It is driving people from their homes, with rebels including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Ethiopia and predatory armed groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia profiting from instability to expand their power and influence. The cascading risks of food insecurity, forced migration, and organized violence are growing more urgent, putting relief agencies and development organizations on high alert. Although they fall below the threshold of armed conflict, these tensions are generating severe humanitarian need. Rapid urbanization, competition over dwindling pasture and arable land, and the absence of government services are adding to the burden.

A major part of the problem is that countries in the Horn are already starting from a low human development baseline. Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia are among the world’s poorest nations. Other nations in the region likewise face sharp social and economic deprivations, with burgeoning urban slums and vast, neglected rural hinterlands. The Horn also suffers from rudimentary agricultural productivity and scant trade in value-added agricultural products. With sky-high population growth averaging 3 percent per year and an outsized youth bulge, the region is struggling to meet the growing demand for basic resources, especially food and energy.

With mitigation efforts unlikely to ease short-term distress, the situation in the Horn underlines the urgent need for climate adaptation.

Another big challenge is that the region is riddled with armed conflicts, extremist violence, and myriad security crises. Ethiopia’s military confrontation in Tigray has left thousands dead and displaced over two million people since 2020. With the Tigrayan rebels marching toward Addis Ababa and the country on high alert, the worsening conflagration could spark a wider crisis tearing apart Africa’s second most populous country. Meanwhile, Somalia’s political crisis between its president and opposing factions is compounded by a long-running conflict with al-Shabab militants linked to al Qaeda. At the same time, protracted negotiations over sharing the Nile’s waters among Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt are becoming increasingly fraught. When Ethiopia began construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2011, it threatened Egypt’s water and food security. Tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Juba and Shabelle rivers are also simmering.

Climate change will only exacerbate these and other security risks. The influence of warming temperatures and erratic rainfall on migration and displacement is particularly worrisome. In 2019 alone, roughly 40 percent of the internal displacement of Sub-Saharan Africans was due to natural disasters, which are expected to increase in frequency. This year, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council explicitly recognized the relationships between climate change, socio-economic underdevelopment, peace, security, and stability. And while the issue still divides the United Nations Security Council, several council resolutions nevertheless acknowledge these same links in Somalia and South Sudan.

Somalia, in particular, is a country on the edge. Daily temperatures there already average 27 degrees Celsius and are expected to climb by another 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Escalating water stress depletes irrigation, agricultural yields, grazing routes, and livestock production. Even the most subtle shifts in seasons and weather patterns can therefore have dire implications. Somalia has suffered more than 30 climate-related shocks since 1990, including 12 droughts and 19 floods. These crises are exacerbated by chronic political instability and weak central government. Recurring bouts of organized violence between farmers and herders, the obstruction of aid, and spiraling food prices have left millions of already ill-fed people hungrier. These miseries were compounded in 2020 by the arrival of billions of desert locusts that further ravaged farmland.

The complex relationships between climate and security have climbed the agendas of diplomats, including in the U.N. Security Council. Ireland and Niger, with support from a raft of European, African, and small island states, may lead the passage of the first ever Security Council resolution on climate and security this week. Among other things, they are urging U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to appoint a special envoy for climate security and deliver a major report on climate security with recommendations on how to tackle the issue. The resolution also recommends that U.N. field missions provide more regular reporting on climate-linked concerns.

Climate and Security: FP Insider Special Report:The threat of climate change requires understanding, strategic planning, and transnational cooperation across sectors in order to design and implement solutions on a global scale. This report looks at how to manage the cascading security implications of a warming world, including lessons learned from the FP's Climate & Security PeaceGames. Read more

Climate and Security: FP Insider Special Report: The threat of climate change requires understanding, strategic planning, and transnational cooperation across sectors in order to design and implement solutions on a global scale. This report looks at how to manage the cascading security implications of a warming world, including lessons learned from the FP’s Climate & Security PeaceGames. Read the report.

Not all Security Council members are convinced. A similar proposal was circulated by Germany last year but abandoned when U.S. support could not be assured. China and India have expressed reservations about the current text, and Russia is sharply opposed to expanding the definition of peace and security to include climate issues. It argues that the Security Council should not take on issues that are, in its view, the responsibility of entities such as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Encouragingly, there are signs, if admittedly still weak, of an organized response to the climate and security crisis in the Horn itself. The African Union’s Continental Early Warning System and the International Authority on Development’s Conflict Early Warning and Response Network are ramping up monitoring of the situation. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (a bloc of eight African countries) and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization have also initiated community development projects to strengthen food security for small scale farmers and pastoralists in regional hotspots such as the Mandera triangle, the conflicted area where Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya meet. The East African Community has likewise launched a transborder initiative to support shared management of common freshwater ecosystems spanning hundreds of thousands of acres.

Among the most ambitious environmental initiatives in Africa is the Great Green Wall. The $8 billion plan sets out to reforest 247 million acres of degraded land and improve climate resilience with an almost 5,000-mile rampart of trees stretching across the continent from Senegal to Djibouti. Launched in 2007 by the African Union and supported by the European Union, U.N., and World Bank, the wall is supposed to be completed by 2030. Once completed, it is expected to absorb nearly 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while also cooling down the climate in one of the hottest places on earth.

But the project is way behind schedule: Just 4 percent of the envisioned area has been planted as of 2020. As impressive as the mega-project is, the Horn needs far more than a wall of trees to curb its underlying climate-related risks and bring peace to this chronically conflicted stretch of the continent.

With mitigation efforts unlikely to ease short-term distress, the situation in the Horn underlines the urgent need to address growing security concerns through climate adaptation. Greater support for safety net systems, water storage and efficiency, redoubled investment in resilient crops such as sorghum and millet, and the development of drought-tolerant crop strains including maize and wheat are essential strategies to foster food security in an era of runaway climate change. At the top of the to-do list is financing—it is vital to ensure that multilateral and bilateral climate funds are allocated to the most fragile ecosystems in the Horn.

Too often, regions such as the Horn are consigned as investment risks and management liabilities to be avoided. Yet that is shortsighted. More than anything, the Horn needs redoubled investment in job creation and other opportunities for young people, to keep them out of harm’s way and prevent them from taking up arms to resolve conflicts that extreme weather and escalating climate disruption will only worsen.

Mac Margolis and Peter Schmidt contributed to this article.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah

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