Poverty and malnutrition are chronic in the Sahel region of West Africa. This year, however, things have been particularly bad. As a result of poor rainfall and high food prices, 18 million people across the Sahel are at risk of malnutrition. One million children face starvation. This year’s food crisis is the third in seven years, and many are concerned that climate change is already causing more frequent droughts and erratic rain patterns.
Compounding the crisis, earlier this year, violence erupted in Mali—at the heart of the Sahel—forcing more than 400,000 people to flee. Many have fled to remote, desert areas in neighboring countries that are among those hardest hit by the food crisis, where food and water are extremely scarce, and where local populations themselves are struggling to survive.
These dual crises are a window into the complex threat that countries of the Sahel now face: increased climate variability combined with growing political instability. Chronically poor to begin with, Sahelian populations are being hit more and more frequently with natural and man-made disasters to which they and their governments have extremely weak capacity to respond.
Last week, I returned from a three-week visit to Mali, where I was assessing the humanitarian situation facing those displaced. The trip was my second to the region in six months. In May, I spent several weeks travelling to Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso and Niger. During these trips, my Refugees International colleagues and I met with displaced families and communities facing food insecurity. Despite millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, the needs of those affected have been only half met.
The international community needs to do far more to prepare for the impact climate change will have on vulnerable regions like the Sahel. Right now, the U.S. and other major donor governments spend far more money responding to humanitarian emergencies caused by natural disasters like droughts and floods than they do helping national governments prepare for them. This needs to change. The international community also needs to act to address the growing number of people who will be forced from their homes by more extreme and erratic weather, or a combination of weather and conflict as is often the case.
The current refugee framework was designed to respond to war, not weather, and is inadequate to protect those displaced by climate-related events. As the situation in the Sahel tragically demonstrates, climate change impacts will be felt most by those least responsible for carbon emissions, and living in the poorest countries of the world, where droughts mean not just lost income, but lost lives. The longer the U.S. and other major emitters of greenhouse gases wait to take action on climate change, the more dangerous game we play with the lives of the world’s most vulnerable.