Conflict and rainfall in the Sahel

I love reading books by economists that try to solve the world’s problems. They always have an interesting perspective on poverty and conflict. Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence and the Poverty of Nations is one such book.

In one chapter, it discusses the conflicts in Chad, Niger and Darfur, all part of the Sahel Belt, perhaps the most violence-prone area on Earth, and finds an interesting statistic. Where it might be common to see ethnic, religious or cultural divisions as the causes of these conflicts, the authors of Economic Gangsters find that the most significant cause is the weather.

The authors find no statistical correlation between war and political and social factors. African countries that are democracies (as difficult as it is to call an electoral democracy a democracy) are just as prone to war as dictatorships, and ethnically homogeneous states are as likely to go to war as heterogeneous ones. But the capriciousness of weather patterns in the age of climate change could mean the collapse into violence of the poorest parts of the world.

First, in any given year, armed conflict is six times more likely in the world’s poorest countries than in the world’s richest countries. So far, nothing new. But they also found that, when GNP declines by 1 percent, the likelihood of conflict increases by 2 percentage points. If it drops by 5 percent, the risk of conflict in the following year is 30 percent higher. Well, what does the economy depend on in poor desert countries? The rain.

In the Sahel, rain can mean life or death. If there were steady, predictable rainfall every year, the people could grow the same crops every year and build houses and farms and live comfortably. But, in large part due to global warming, many of the poorest parts of the world suffer from floods or droughts. If there is no water, your crops cannot grow. (If there is too much water, the problem in other parts of Africa, your crops are destroyed.) And it is difficult to raise animals if there are no plants. People become desperate. Many of them tried to move to neighbouring states but were repatriated soon after, right in time for another drought. People are in dire need of food, but there is no water to grow it. They try to move and are ejected. If you add in the fact that members of the government rarely starve, you see rationale for an armed rebellion.

Solutions? Allowing more immigration would help. People need to be able to move away from poor areas to places where they can survive. Better irrigation and water sanitation systems could keep crop growth consistent, provided rebels do not steal farmer’s food first. Halting global warming could also help tame harsh weather in the Sahel, but that is an even more distant prospect than throwing the doors open to migrants. For now, the authors conclude, the people of Chad, Niger and Darfur can only pray for rain.

One Response to “Conflict and rainfall in the Sahel”

  1. menso Says:

    Here is a new study on the effects of climate change on conflict in sub-Saharan Africa:

    Click to access burke_et_al_submitted.pdf

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