Oddly, humour in Kenya’s social media space is drawing on perhaps the world’s deadliest link between climate change and conflict.
“Never underestimate the power of nature and small people working together. It took locusts for President Uhuru Kenyatta to sack Mwangi Kiunjuri,” goes one tweet, commenting on the removal of Kenya’s Agriculture Cabinet Secretary on January 14, 2020.
In a bizarre way, the tweet on locust and Kenyan politics mirrors the global debate on the nexus between climate change – including above-average temperature, excessive or insufficient rainfall, desertification and environmental degradation –and conflict in the world’s most vulnerable countries in the Horn of Africa.
The worst invasion of locusts in some places in 70 years is the most recent addition to the vagaries of climbing temperatures, which are seen as a threat to global security and blamed for increasing incidence of armed conflict and violent extremism especially in the Horn of Africa.
But why are locusts such a menace? According to Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), a regional agency initially formed in 1986 as a regional response to the twin threat of drought and locusts: A “typical desert locust swarm can have up to 150 million locusts per square kilometre.”
Swarms swept by the wind can cover 62 to 93 miles or 100 to 150 kilometres in a day, and can destroy as much food crops in a day as is sufficient to feed 2,500 people.
Heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures are favourable conditions for locust breeding.
The recent locust threat is attributed to rapidly warming waters in the Indian Ocean, which spawned an unusual number of strong tropical cyclones off the Eastern African coast and precipitated heavy rains here, making 2019 the region’s wettest year on record.
In its wake, the locust invasion poses an unprecedented threat to food security and giving new impetus to the debate on the link between climate change and the increased incidence of war, and the resurgence of violent extremism in the Horn of Africa.
Conceptually, this scholarly and policy debate hinges on the concept of “climate security”, itself based on the idea that climate-related change amplifies existing risks in society that endangers the security of humans, ecosystems, economy, infrastructure and societies.
This position was articulated by one influential research paper titled "Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa" (November 23, 2009), tabled in the Proceedings of the United States National Academy of Sciences, which suggested a strong link between temperature rises in Africa and significant increases in the likelihood of war.
Rising temperatures have influenced between three per cent and 20 per cent of armed conflict risk over the last century.
Ominously, future temperature trends indicate that armed conflict incidence will increase roughly by 54 per cent as of 2030, which translates to an additional 393,000 battle deaths (if future wars are as deadly as recent ones).
This is far from saying that climate change in itself is a cause of violent conflict or violent extremism. Rather, it simply “sharpens disputes” over the already scarce resources.
Warlords, cattle rustlers and violent extremists are not driven by rain, the temperature, or the sea level.
Instead, they exploit in an opportunistic fashion drought, flooding, starvation, agricultural or natural disasters in their strategies of fighting for power, territory, money or revenge.
Climate change merely provides the lightning rod that terrorists, armed groups and the elite exploit to ignite and sustain wars in societies facing economic uncertainties resulting from temperature-related worsening livelihood conditions and yield declines in economies heavily dependent upon rain-fed agriculture.
In Somalia, the epicenter of violent extremism in the Horn, 70 per cent of the population depends on regular climate patterns to make a living.
Here, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab terror group and other violent groups have exploited a mix of droughts, floods, increased desertification caused by climate change and the ensuing displacement within the wider canvas of tensions between between herders, farmers, and clans in recent decades to radicalise and recruit fighters in their terror campaign.
Measures by terrorist groups to fund their activities have destroyed the environment. It is estimated that al-Shabaab smuggles about three million bags of charcoal from southern Somalia at an estimated revenue of $360–$384 million per year.
LIVELIHOODS AT RISK
In Kenya’s Boni forest, al-Shabaab fighters have been involved in hunting of buffalo, zebra, antelope, giraffe and other animals for meat.
They have displaced local pastoralists, who use the forest as a source of pasture for their livestock, harvest honey and wild fruits, therefore destroying livelihoods.
In Mount Kenya and beyond, terrorists are said to be tapping into trade in wildlife products, the fourth largest illegal business globally with an annual turnover of between $7 and $23 billion, which whittled down the population of elephants by 62 per cent between 2010 and 2012.
Climate change-related risk and the ensuing humanitarian crisis account for the resurgence of al-Shabaab in the Horn over the 2017-2019 period.
In Somalia and Ethiopia, it is estimated that drought has triggered 1.1 million and 500,000 new displacements, respectively, since 2017.
In 2018, droughts and floods displaced almost 1.5 million people in the region, creating fertile grounds for al-Shabaab to radicalise and recruit victims.
The climate change-armed conflict nexus is inspiring a new interventionist hue in foreign policies of major powers.
As military strategists in the Pentagon have advanced the idea of climate wars, climate change is increasingly being spoken of as a threat to US national security, thus justifying “an American humanitarian relief or military response”. The “climate war” risks eclipsing the “war on violent extremism”.
African countries and their partners need to invest in more collaborative research to fully understand the relationship between climate change and conflict.
A world that has full knowledge of the trends in temperature changes has much more time to anticipate future conflicts and step up preventive diplomacy and strategies for good governance to deal with both war and climate change.
Professor Kagwanja is CEO of Africa Policy Institute.