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Climate change and its effects in West Africa: Babatunde Saka

Dr. Babatunde Akeem Saka is a public health specialist with special interest in disease epidemiology and prevention. He works in multiple veterinary clinics, university veterinary teaching hospital, university slaughter slab as well as some agrochemical companies. In February 2018, Dr. Saka joined the GET Consortium as a researcher and in an administrative capacity as the Global Executive Secretary.


West African economy is mainly subsistence farming, herding, and fishing which are rain-fed and weather dependent. Thus, highly vulnerable to climatic changes. With an approximately 4percent decrease in rainfall across West Africa annually (except for the Guinean coast), drought has plagued several parts of this region in the last few decades which has led to drying of otherwise wet areas suitable for herders.1 This has taken a substantial toll on the livelihoods and food security of hundreds of thousands of people especially the Fulani herders close to the Sahel. The effects of climate change which include unstable livelihoods and the potential for increased political instability is presently being manifested in full in Nigeria, Ghana and other West African countries.

A greater percentage of the population in most developing states depend on four key environmental resources that are very fundamental to crop and livestock production: fresh water, cropland, forests and fish.2 Scarcity or shrinking of these resources as a result of misuse, over-use or degradation under certain circumstances will trigger off conflicts.

Attempts to sustain the increasing need for food with an apparently limited arable land has forced farmers into marginal lands traditionally utilised by pastoralists and thus heightened the competition between livestock and agricultural production. Continuously sustained lesser rains, expansion of the dessert, increased population pressure with attendant urbanization has led to the concomitant loss of the corridors between wet and dry season grazing areas and increasingly obstruct livestock movement.3

This is evident in the Sahelian and Sudano-Sahelian zones of northern Nigeria which have suffered environmental degradation caused by successive years of poor rainfall and recurrent droughts, exacerbated by the combined effects of natural population growth and in-migration. Classical cases include the Lake Chad basin and the Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands. Lake Chad is an extremely shallow lake which at its peak a few decades back provided fresh water and fishes for over 20 million people in different communities of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger,4 it has been susceptible to the growing climatic changeability and human bearings in the last few decades and is reported to have lost about 90% of its size.5

The loss of the lake’s volume disrupted economic livelihoods and resulted into two conflict-prone variables: firstly, increased competition among the various livelihoods over the available water resources and secondly, increased human migration within the basin. However, both variables have equally increased over the years. This has intensified the frequency of migration and cross-border movement within the basin which has heightened resource and identity conflict in the North-Eastern region of Nigeria specifically through the incursion of Udawa nomadic cattle herders from the Republic of Niger as well as the migration of citizens of Chad and of Nigerians further south in search of better openings. It has been reported that these long-distance migrants,usually referred to as Udawa, have been well-armed since the mid-1990s and are willing to use violence to assure their grazing.6


Desertification a resultant of wind erosion which renders affected land non-fertile is encroaching southwards from the Sahel. About 60 to 80mg in every hectare (4-5 mm) of topsoil was lost from the field by wind erosion in the Sahel region annually.7 This top-soil loss is 5-8 times greater than the maximum value of soil loss that will inflict great impact on crop production in farmland of the United States.8 Therefore, there is an increasingly unavailability of pasture as the attendant drought has dried up springs and streams across Nigeria’s far northern Sahelian belt and large numbers of herders have had to search for alternative pastures and sources of water for their cattle leading to in-migration.

Farmers-Herders Clashes

Perhaps the most prevalent security challenge cutting across West African countries other than ethnoreligious diversity is the farmers-herders crisis which has snow-balled into political instability in countries like Nigeria and Ghana. This phenomenon is multidimensional. Originally, the herders rear their cattle in the Sahel regions during the wet season and migrate down south towards the coastal region during the dry season. Before now, coastal part of Africa was more heavily infested with Tsetse fly which is causative of African Trypanosomiasis (AT) which is a disease with high morbidity and mortality in cattle. The heavy presence of tsetse especially during the wet season compels the herders to vacate and return to the Sahel as soon as the sign of rains come, a time which coincides with the beginning of the planting season in the coastal areas of West Africa. They return at the end of the rains which also coincides with the end of the planting period in this region. This migration pattern ensured the safety of planted crops all year round.

However, climatic variability and urbanization which has diminished the presence of tsetse fly in the West African coastal plains9, induced multiple-phased droughts in the Sahel as well as development of drugs effective for the treatment of AT has made the coastal regions more habitable and a haven for herders. This situation now makes the Fulani herder stay longer or even permanently in this coastal region. Cattle presence during the planting season predisposes to farm invasion or create route conflict and thence lead to farmer-herder conflict which is seen largely in this region of West Africa during this period. The situation has become militarized with weapons used by both sides during reprisal attacks. Farmers have resorted to rustling or poisoning cows in retaliation for ravaging farms. Herders have attacked whole villages in the dead of night to avenge poisoning of their cattle or rustling. About 7,000 cattle were reportedly rustled from farms and traditional herders in Northern Nigeria between October 2013 and April 2014.10 Cattle rustling is reported in virtually all the northern states in Nigeria.11


1. Livelihood Security. Climate Change, Migration and Conflict in the Sahel. ISBN: 978-92-807-3198-9.
2. Homer-Dixon TF, Blitt J. Ecoviolence: Links among environment, population and security. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield. 1998
3. Climate-Related Conflicts in West Africa REPORT FROM AFRICA Population, Health, Environment, and Conflict
4. Freedom C. Environmental Degradation, Livelihood and Conflicts: A focus on the Implications of the Diminishing Water Resources of Lake Chad for North-Eastern Nigeria
5. Freedom C. Op Cit 26

6. Blench, R. Natural resource conflict in north-central Nigeria: A handbook and case studies. Cambridge: Mallam Dendo Ltd. 2004
7. Ikazaki K, Shinjo H, Tanaka U, Tobita S, Funakawa S, Kosaki T. Soil and nutrient loss from a cultivated field during wind erosion events in the Sahel, West Africa. Pedologist. 2012; 55: 355–363.
8. Renard KG, Foster GR, Weesies GA, McCool DK, Yoder DC. Soil-loss tolerance. In Predicting Soil Erosion by Water: A Guide to Conservation Planning with the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE), USDA Agric. Handbook. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC. 1997;703:12−13.
9. Foresight. Infectious Diseases: preparing for the future. OFFICE OF SCIENCE AND INNOVATION. Cattle trypanosomiasis in Africa to 2030.
10. Bashir M. Hopes for an End to Cattle Theft, in: Daily Trust, 4 September, 2014.
11. Olaniyan A, Yahaya A, Cows, Bandits, and Violent Conflicts: Understanding Cattle Rustling in Northern Nigeria, in: Africa Spectrum. 2016; 51(3): 93–105.

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