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Climate change and livelihoods in the Sahel: Revisiting nexus and focusing on endogenous knowledge

Climate change effects will be especially grave in the Sahel. Temperatures increase; sustained droughts and desertification affect local livelihoods. A "threat multiplier" is frequently evoked. But questions arise: In which way are these phenomena related? What are local coping strategies?

Research Paper

Published on 3 February 2021

Author(s): Oriol Puig Cepero

Climate change effects will be especially grave in the Sahel zone in the next following decades (UNEP, 2011). Temperatures in the area will increase more than the global average -1,5ºC- and sustained droughts and desertification will affect the livelihoods of millions of people, according to IPCC (2019). The logical reasoning is clear: the degradation of the soil aggravates food insecurity, led to instability and violent extremism and drives displacement and human mobility (Myers, 1995). This statement evokes a “threat multiplier” based on climate change-fragility-conflict and migration nexus (Homer-Dixon, 1994). But questions arise: Is this hypothesis accurate? In which way are these phenomena related? Which are the local strategies to cope the environmental degradation?

The EU focuses on the Sahel from this security perspective considering that climate change will intensify the instability of the zone with terrorism expansion, food crises extension and migration flows rising (Barnett & Adger, 2007). Some studies demonstrated, however, that parts of the Sahel have been “re-greening” (Hutchinson et al., 2005). Other predictions indicate that an increase of rainfalls as a consequence of climate change could turn this dry region into a very wet one (Schewe & Levermann, 2017). These countervailing studies are often ignored or undervalued by policymakers and international organizations. This paper deepens in the impact of climate change on livelihoods in Niger and Mali, mostly based on rain-fed agriculture, nomad and transhumance activities, avoiding neo-Malthusian arguments to explain climate risks in the area. From a political ecology approach, the study focuses on local coping strategies to environmental stressors such as mobility, one of the main endemic characteristics of the Western Sahel zone. The article also values the importance of indigenous knowledge and points how to incorporate it in current policies.