How climate change is fueling extremism

Story highlights

Lake Chad in Africa's Sahel region has shrunk by over 90% since the 1960s due to prolonged drought

Extreme weather events in parts of Africa and the Middle East have bolstered the influence of militants, experts say

Countries must invest in climate adaptation programs to prevent citizens from falling into grip of extremists

CNN  — 

Climate change is already triggering devastating weather events across the planet, including prolonged droughts, flash floods and wildfires.

Parts of Africa and the Middle East are experiencing erratic harvests, heavy storms and the worst drought in the past 900 years.

Experts say that people here who are struggling to provide for their families are vulnerable to the influence of extremist recruits who offer them work and food.

Vanishing Lake Chad bolsters Boko Haram

Across the Sahel, a semi-arid region between the Sahara desert and Sudanian Savannah in Africa, temperature increases are projected to be 1.5 times higher than the global average, according to the United Nations.

About 50 million people in the Sahel are pastoralists whose livelihoods depend on rearing livestock.

But droughts and floods triggered by climate change are shrinking their lands, leaving over 29 million people food insecure.

The impact of climate change on the Sahel is clearly shown by the shrinking of Lake Chad.

Spanning seven countries, including Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, the lake basin is critical to the livelihoods of nearly 30 million people.

But since the 1960s the lake’s water supply has shrunk by over 90%, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

This aerial picture taken on July 16, 2016 shows Lake Chad in Africa's Sahel region. The lake's water supply has shrunk by over 90% since the 1960s.

Robert Muggah, who analyzes global climate and security challenges at the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Brazil, says the diminishing water sources are “flashpoints for violence” as communities struggle with reduced crop yields and high levels of poverty.

“Climate shocks and stresses are pushing many into extreme poverty. Joining an armed group is sometimes the only option available,” he added.

What is climate change? Your questions answered

In 2018, US officials expressed concern about ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel region.

Muggah agrees with this assessment, claiming that the drying of Lake Chad has bolstered recruitment efforts of extremist groups including Boko Haram, the militant group operating in Nigeria.

Does water scarcity create a terror spring?

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the world’s most water scarce region.

MENA is home to six percent of the world’s population, but only one percent of the world’s freshwater resources, according to the World Bank.

17 countries in the region fall below the water poverty line set by the United Nations, and some experts believe that drought played a part in sparking Syria’s civil war.

According to a study from 2015, severe drought, likely compounded by climate change, triggered mass migration from rural to urban areas in Syria between 2007 and 2010.

The prolonged dry spell led to the death of 85% of livestock in eastern Syria and widespread crop failure, according to Jamal Saghir, a professor at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University.

This pushed 800,000 people into food insecurity and prompted 1.5 million people to migrate to already overpopulated cities, contributing to the civil unrest which erupted in 2011 and spiralled into civil war, Saghir told CNN.

Iraqi marsh Arabs collect the remains of dried out reeds in the Hor or marshes on November 18, 2009. The inhabitants of these ancient marshes are suffering from the slow suffocation of the marshes due to drought triggered by climate change.

The impacts of “climate-induced drought” were also linked to the growing influence of ISIS in the Middle East in a 2017 report commissioned by the German foreign office.

The report said that increased water scarcity in Syria “played an important role” in the forming of ISIS and that “ISIS tried to gain and retain legitimacy by providing water and other services to garner support from local populations” during the prolonged drought.

However, other researchers have disputed how much of a role drought played in the conflict.

Can the Middle East solve its water problem?

In 2009 ISIS’ recruitment efforts targeted impoverished farmers in Iraq whose livelihoods were devastated by drought and fierce winds, according to Saghir.

“Terrorist organizations like ISIS capitalize on the devastation wrought by climate change to attract new members,” said Saghir.

“The ISIS recruiters offered money, food and other riches to rural Iraqis to lure them into joining the ranks of the jihadist group. With no means to sustain themselves through agricultural means, many farmers accepted ISIS’ bribes for both monetary and morale support,” he said.

Sustainable alternatives to extremism

To prevent their citizens from falling into the grip of extremists, countries must invest in adaptation programs, which will reduce people’s “vulnerability to extreme climatic events,” Nadim Farajalla, director of the climate change and environment program at the American University of Beirut, told CNN.

Two ways for countries to become more climate resilient include diversifying their crop production and investing in renewable energy, he said.

Countries susceptible to drought should move away from irrigating their crops and focus on rain-fed agriculture, growing crops like lentils and chickpeas instead of the water-intensive livestock feed alfalfa, he explained.

Solar power should be harnessed in the fight against extremism, according to Rachel Kyte, CEO of UN initiative Sustainable Energy for All.

A general view shows a solar plant at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on November 13, 2017.

Providing communities in Africa and the Middle East with clean, affordable energy can help them cope with climate change, advance women’s rights and beat back support for extremists, Kyte told CNN.

“With solar-powered irrigation we have an opportunity to increase agricultural yields in rural communities, giving families greater income and greater economic hope,” she said.

Muggah agreed that small-scale interventions like solar electricity generators can have a “transformative effect on neglected communities.”

“By strengthening and empowering local residents, the influence of extremist groups can be weakened,” he said.