Does Climate Change Lead to Conflicts in the Sahel?

  • Tor A. BenjaminsenEmail author
Part of the Springer Earth System Sciences book series (SPRINGEREARTH)


A dominant narrative in international politics and media presentations holds that there is a close connection between climate change and conflicts, especially conflicts involving pastoralists in the Sahel. The narrative consists of two elements: (1) Global climate change leads to drought and desertification, which in turn lead to resource scarcity; (2) This scarcity leads to migration and the emergence of new conflicts, or it triggers existing, latent conflicts. This chapter is a critical assessment of these claims based on two case studies from Mali and a review of international research. The narrative is attractive to politicians and bureaucrats, in particular, and is championed by some influential scholars. In both case studies, the drought in the 1980s only played a minor role in explaining the conflict, while the root causes were political and historical. In addition, there does not seem to be any clear link between resource scarcity in the Sahel in the 1980s and global climate change. An association between scarcity and increased conflict levels cannot, however, be dismissed, even if empirical results from international research question the validity of such a correlation. The causes of conflicts in the Sahel are in general associated with state policies, which result in the marginalization of pastoralists. In areas where pastoralism and farming overlap as the main forms of land use, there are continuous conflicts of varying scale and intensity. These conflicts are primarily caused by politics, not climate change.


Climate change Conflicts Sahel Mali Tuareg rebellion Farmer-herder conflicts 


  1. Ag Baye, C. (1993). The process of a peace agreement. Between the movements and the United Fronts of Azawad and the government of Mali. In H. Veber, J. Dahl, F. Wilson & E. Wæhle (Eds.), “…Never drink from the same cup”. Proceedings of the conference on indigenous peoples in Africa (pp. 247–256). Tune, Denmark. IWGIA Document no. 74.Google Scholar
  2. Ba, B. (2008). Pouvoirs, ressources et développement dans le delta central du Niger. Paris: L’Harmattan.Google Scholar
  3. Bächler, G. (1998). Violence through environmental discrimination. Causes, Rwanda arena, and conflict model. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  4. Bächler, G., & Spillmann, K. R. (Eds.). (1996). Environmental degradation as a cause of war. Country studies of external experts. Chur-Zürich: Rüegger.Google Scholar
  5. Barnett, J. (2003). Security and climate change. Global Environmental Change, 13, 717.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Barrière, O., & Barrière, C. (2002). Un droit à inventer. Foncier et environnement dans le delta intérieur du Niger. Editions IRD, collection “A travers champs”. Paris: Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD).Google Scholar
  7. Behnke, R., & Scoones, I. (1993). Rethinking range ecology: Implications for rangeland management in Africa. In R. Behnke, I. Scoones & C. Kerven (Eds.), Range ecology at disequilibrium. New models of natural variability and pastoral adaptation in African savannas. London: Overseas Development Institute and International Institute for Environment and Development.Google Scholar
  8. Behnke, R., Scoones, I., & Kerven, C. (Eds.). (1993). Range ecology at disequilibrium. New models of natural variability and pastoral adaptation in African savannas. London: Overseas Development Institute and International Institute for Environment and Development.Google Scholar
  9. Benjaminsen, T. (1997). Natural resource management, paradigm shifts and the decentralization reform in Mali. Human Ecology, 25(1), 121–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Benjaminsen, T. A. (2001). The population-agriculture-environment nexus in the Malian cotton zone. Global Environmental Change, 11(4), 27–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Benjaminsen, T. A. (2008). Does supply-induced scarcity drive violent conflicts in the African Sahel? The case of the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. Journal of Peace Research, 45(6), 831–848.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Benjaminsen, T. A., Alinon, K., Buhaug, H., & Buseth, J. T. (2012). Does climate change drive land-use conflicts in the Sahel? Journal of Peace Research, 49(1), 97–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Benjaminsen, T. A., & Ba, B. (2009). Farmer-herder conflicts, pastoral marginalisation and corruption: a case study from the inland Niger delta of Mali. The Geographical Journal, 174(1), 71–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Benjaminsen, T. A., & Berge, G. (2004). Une histoire de Tombouctou. Arles: Actes-Sud.Google Scholar
  15. Biasutti, M. (2013). Forced Sahel rainfall trends in the CMIP5 archive. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 118, 1613–1623.Google Scholar
  16. Boko, M., Niang, I., Nyong, A., Vogel, C., Githeko, A., Medany, M., et al. (2007) Africa. Climate change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. In M. L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J. P. Palutikof, P. J. van der Linden & C. E. Hanson (Eds.), Contribution of working group II to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (pp. 433–467). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Boserup, E. (1965). The conditions of agricultural growth. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  18. Buhaug, H. (2010). Climate not to blame for African civil wars. Paper presented at the ‘Climate Change and Security’ conference, Trondheim, June 21–24, 2010.
  19. Buhaug, H., Gleditsch, N. P., & Theisen, O. M. (2010). Implications of climate change for armed conflict. In R. Mearns & A. Norton (Eds.), Social dimensions of climate change: Equity and vulnerability in a warming world (pp. 75–101). World Bank, Washington, DC: New Frontiers of Social Policy.Google Scholar
  20. Buontempo, C., Booth, B., & Moufouma-Okia, W. (2010). The climate of the Sahel. In P. Heinrigs & M. Trémolières (Eds.), Global security risks and West Africa. Development challenges(pp. 58–71). Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  21. Burke, M. B., Miguel, E., Satyanath, S., Dykema, J. A., & Lobell, D. B. (2009). Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 20670–20674.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Chappell, A., & Agnew, C. (2004). Modelling climate change in West African Sahel rainfall (1931–90) as an artifact of changing station locations. International Journal of Climatology, 24, 547–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Cotula, L., & Cissé, S. (2006). Changes in ‘customary’ resource tenure systems in the inner Niger delta, Mali. Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 52, 129.Google Scholar
  24. Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse. How societies choose to fail or survive. London: Allen Lane.Google Scholar
  25. Ellis, J. E., & Swift, D. M. (1988). Stability of African pastoral ecosystems: Alternate paradigms and implications for development. Journal of Range Management, 41(6), 450–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Fairhead, J. (2001). International dimensions of conflict over natural and environmental resources. In N. L. Peluso & M. Watts (Eds.), Violent environments (pp. 213–236). Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Forse, B. (1989). The myth of the marching desert. New Scientist, 4, 31–32.Google Scholar
  28. Gleditsch, N. P. (1998). Armed conflict and the environment: A critique of the literature. Journal of Peace Research, 35(3), 363–380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Haarsma, R. J., Selten, F., Weber, N., & Kliphuis, M. (2005). Sahel rainfall variability and responses to greenhouse warming. Geophysical Research Letters, 32, L17702. doi: 10.1029/2005GL023232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hiernaux, P. (1993). The crisis of Sahelian pastoralism: Ecological or economic? Addis Ababa: International Livestock Centre for Africa.Google Scholar
  31. Hiernaux, P., Mougin, E., Diarra, L., Soumaguel, N., Lavenu, F., Tracol, Y., et al. (2009). Sahelian rangeland response to changes in rainfall over two decades in the Gourma region, Mali. Journal of Hydrology, 375(1–2), 114–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Homer-Dixon, T. (1994). Environmental scarcities and violent conflict. Evidence from cases. International Security, 19(1), 5–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Homer-Dixon, T. (1999). Environment, scarcity, and violence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Homer-Dixon, T. (2007). Terror in the weather forecast. The New York Times, April 24.Google Scholar
  35. Hulme, M. (2001). Climatic perspectives on Sahelian desiccation: 1973–1998. Global Environmental Change, 11(1), 19–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hutchinson, C. F., Herrmann, S. M., Maukonen, T., & Weber, J. (2005). Introduction: The ‘Greening’ of the Sahel. Journal of Arid Environments, 63, 535–537.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kahl, C. H. (2006). States, scarcity, and civil strife in the developing world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Kaplan, R. D. (1994). The coming anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet (pp. 44–76). Atlantic Monthly, February.Google Scholar
  39. Kevane, M., & Gray, L. (2008). Darfur: Rainfall and conflict. Environmental Research Letters, 3, 034006. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/3/3/034006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ki-Moon, B. (2007). A climate culprit in Darfur. Washington Post 16 June.Google Scholar
  41. Klute, G. (1995). Hostilités et alliances. Archéologie de la dissidence des touaregs au Mali. Cahiers d’Études Africaines, 137(XXXV-1), 55–71.Google Scholar
  42. Kouyaté, S. (2006). Etude des enjeux nationaux de protection du basin du fleuve Niger. Report to Groupe de Coordination des Zones Arides (GCOZA). Bamako: GCOZA.Google Scholar
  43. Lecocq, B. (2004). Unemployed intellectuals in the Sahara: The teshumara nationalist movement and the revolutions in Tuareg society. IRSH, 49, 87–109.Google Scholar
  44. Mazo, J. (2010). Climate conflict. How global warming threatens security and what to do about it. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Mortimore, M. (1998). Roots in the African dust: Sustaining the sub-Saharan drylands. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Moseley, W. G. (2005). Reflecting on National Geographic Magazine and Academic Geography: The September 2005 special issue on Africa. African Geographical Revie, 24, 93–100.Google Scholar
  47. Mougin, E., Hiernaux, P., Kergoat, L., Grippa, M., De Rosnay, P., Timouk, F., et al. (2009). The AMMA-CATCH Gourma observatory site in Mali: Relating climatic variations to changes in vegetation, surface hydrology, fluxes and natural resources. Journal of Hydrology, 375(1–2), 34–51.Google Scholar
  48. Niang, I. & Ruppel, O. C. (Coordinating Lead Authors). (2014). Africa, in IPCC 5th assessment report (Chapter 22).Google Scholar
  49. Nordås, R., & Gleditsch, N. P. (2007). Climate change and conflict. Political Geography, 26, 627–638.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Odekunle, T. O., Andrew, O., & Aremu, S. O. (2008). Towards a wetter Sudano-Sahelian ecological zone in twenty-first century Nigeria. Weather, 63(3), 66–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Olsson, L., Eklundh, L., & Ardö, J. (2005). A recent greening of the Sahel—Trends, patterns and potential causes. Journal of Arid Environments, 63, 556–566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Peluso, N. L., & Watts, M. (Eds.). (2001). Violent environments. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Poteete, A. R., Janssen, M. A., & Ostrom, E. (2010). Working together. Collective action, the commons, and multiple methods in practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Poulton, R. E., & Ag Youssouf, I. (1998). A peace of Timbuktu. Democratic governance, development and African peacemaking. New York and Geneva: UNIDIR.Google Scholar
  56. Richards, P. (Ed.). (2005). No peace, no war: An anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts. Oxford: James Currey.Google Scholar
  57. Sachs, J. (2007). Poverty and environmental stress fuel Darfur crisis. Nature, 449, 24. September 6, 2007.Google Scholar
  58. Salehyan, I. (2008). From climate change to conflict? No consensus yet. Journal of Peace Research, 45(3), 315–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sullivan, S., & Rohde, R. F. (2002). On non-equilibrium in arid and semi-arid grazing systems. Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Theisen, O. M. (2008). Blood and soil? Resource scarcity and internal armed conflict revisted. Journal of Peace Research, 45(6), 813–830.Google Scholar
  61. Tiffen, M., Mortimore, M., & Gichuki, F. (1994). More people, less erosion. Environmental recovery in Kenya. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  62. Tucker, C., Dregne, H. E., & Newcomb, W. W. (1991). Expansion and contraction of the Sahara desert from 1980 to 1990. Science, 253, 299–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Tucker, C., & Nicholson, S. (1999). Variations in the size of the Sahara Desert from 1980 to 1997. Ambio, 28(7), 587–591.Google Scholar
  64. Turner, M. (1992). Living on the edge: Fulbe herding practices and the relationship between economy and ecology in the inland Niger Delta of Mali. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  65. Turner, M. (1993). Overstocking the range: A critical analysis of the environmental science of Sahelian Pastoralism. Economic Geography, 69(4), 402–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. UNEP. (2007). Sudan: Post-conflict environmental assessment. Nairobi: UNEP.Google Scholar
  67. Warren, A., & Khogali, M. (1992). Assessment of desertification and drought in the Sudano-Sahelian region 1985–1991. New York: UNSO.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of International Environment and Development StudiesNorwegian University of Life SciencesAkershusNorway

Personalised recommendations