Cause behind African migrant flood has terrifying implications for the world

The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is symptomatic of deep dislocation in the Sahel region and sub-Saharan Africa — dislocation exacerbated by climate change.

Climate change is affecting such basic environmental conditions as rainfall patterns and temperatures and is contributing to more frequent natural disasters like floods and droughts. Over the long term, these changing conditions can undermine the rural livelihoods of farming, herding and fishing. The resulting rural dislocation is a factor in people’s decisions to migrate.

Migratory decisions are complex, of course, and nobody would argue that climate change is the only factor driving them. But climate change cannot be ignored. The second-order effects of climate change — undermined agriculture and competition for water and food resources — can contribute to instability and to higher numbers of migrants.

These are the conclusions of our regional report on Northwest Africa, published in 2012, which examined the root causes of tragedies like that of the drowning deaths of up to 700 migrants attempting to reach Europe by boat via the Mediterranean. We found that underlying climate and demographic trends can squeeze the margins of life at the family and community levels, contribute to decisions to migrate, heighten conflicts over basic resources and threaten state structures and regional stability. We also found that climate challenges, longstanding migratory routes and security concerns are linked to the Maghreb, the Sahel region and the Niger Delta in compelling ways.

In northwest Africa, climate change will exacerbate difficulties in areas already facing numerous environmental and developmental challenges. Overall, up to 250 million people in Africa are projected to suffer from water and food insecurity in the 21st century. In the Sahel region, three-quarters of rain-fed arable land will be greatly affected by climate change. Droughts and flooding are already more frequent in Niger and northern Nigeria, along with temperature rises that jeopardize crucial rural activities.

The Niger River faces diminishing flows of roughly 10 percent, which numerous new dam projects will only worsen. If current water consumption trends continue, withdrawals from the Niger basin will increase sixfold by 2025, with profound implications for Nigeria. Lake Chad, which supports 25 million people, is drying up and is one-twentieth of its size in 1960. Northern Algeria, home to most of the country’s population and agriculture, may see rainfall reductions of 10 percent to 20 percent by 2025. Rainfall in Morocco is expected to decrease by 20 percent by the end of the century.

And as previously mentioned, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are tied together by longstanding and well-established migratory routes. As early as 2011, research indicated that about 65,000 migrants passed through Agadez, Niger, on their way north to Algeria, Morocco and Europe each year. As climate change takes a toll on farming, herding and fishing, undermining livelihoods and contributing to decisions to migrate, these numbers could grow larger.

Nigeria is losing more than 1,350 square miles of land to desertification each year, a pace that may increase with climate change. With 70 percent of Nigeria’s population reliant on agriculture for its livelihood, and 90 percent of Niger’s workforce reliant on rain-fed agriculture, desertification represents a fundamental threat to rural life. Indeed, the line at which rainfall maintains sufficient groundwater for farming has been shifting south in recent years, according to United Nations reports.

These are not the abstract complaints of climate scientists; this is profoundly disruptive in a region dependent on agriculture. In Niger, frequent droughts have impoverished many and contributed to migration. When faced with deteriorating conditions, humans have long turned to migration; it is a basic adaptive mechanism.

And these trends in combination with rapid projected population growth throughout the Sahel region and West Africa are increasing the strain on the countries along this migratory route. Niger has the world’s second-highest fertility rate, with a median age of just 15 years, and its population is expected to quadruple in the next century. Nigeria’s population, meanwhile, is expected to double by 2040. Population growth increases the strain on already scarce natural resources like water, land and food and further contributes to migratory decisions.

Any effort to address the migrant tragedy playing out in the Mediterranean must address and incorporate these deeper-root causes. Though the warning signs have long been evident, policymakers still tend to focus on the symptoms rather than the causes.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress, where his work as member of the National Security Team focuses on the nexus of climate change, migration, and security and emerging democracies. Max Hoffman is a Policy Analyst on the National Security & International Policy team at American Progress.

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