Climate Security in the Sahel: Interview with PhD researcher Alexandra Krendelsberger for Women’s History Month
Written by Nina de Ayala Parker
Climate–exacerbated conflict in the Sahel is a stark example of the need for climate security research to contribute to peacebuilding efforts in the region.
Parts of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal all make up the Sahel, a region with enormous opportunities and vast assets in terms of tourism, culture, natural resources, and energy.
How will climate security research bridge the gaps between the science and policies needed to allow for adaptation and sustainable peace? Why is the Sahel so vulnerable to climate change? And what needs to be done?
I spoke to the Ph.D. candidate and researcher Alexandra Krendelsberger whose work in the Sahel will focus on understanding the various forms through which food systems can act as a mediating component between climate change impacts and conflict outbreaks.
Alexandra is a researcher in a new Climate Security Ph.D. program in partnership between Wageningen University and Research (WUR), CGIAR, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
The programme sees three young and outstanding all-female candidates represent the global South as well as the North, focusing their research on climate security in the Sahel and the Asian deltas of the Mekong and the Ganges.
Hi Alexandra, in your own words, what is climate security? And what role does climate change play in the Sahel region?
When we speak about ‘climate security’, not only does one refer to the obvious assumption which is ‘military’, it’s also important to apply a human–centered lens to climate security; a human security dimension. Applying this lens, one must include gender inequality, aspects of food security, and income security when assessing exactly how climate change leads to conflict, who suffers, and therefore, who requires climate security policies, which protect their land, environment, and region.
So, what role does climate change play? It is everywhere, we are seeing the effects of climate change and the Sahel is one of the prime examples of an area directly impacted by climate change and armed conflict.
How does your work link to climate security in the Sahel and what are the focal points of your research?
For my research, I will focus on the ‘peanut basin’ of Senegal, which is – as the name implies – an area historically dominated by peanut production.
I will look at the changes in the availability of water and land and how it is being influenced by climate change. Specifically, I will assess how climate shocks – specifically difficult to predict changes in weather patterns resulting in natural disasters, droughts, floods – influence the availability of and access to natural resources.
These shocks can be very damaging to small-scale farmers without the right coping mechanisms in place.
Yes, smallholders may be able to cope with such unexpected shocks once or twice, but frequent shocks are debilitating to farming activities and their day-to-day amenities. If there are no preparations or infrastructure in place to adapt to these shocks, then the ensuing food shortages and increased competition over scarce resources can result in conflict.
The particular case study I will analyze is the competition between pastoralists and farmers, comparing and contrasting how dynamics between these different groups play out and how these resources are distributed.
Historically, in the Sahel conflict between livestock herders and crop farmers were driven by agricultural reforms that favored crop farmers.
There is also an added ethnic dimension to the historic participation of different tribes in pastoralists and farmer activities. The migration patterns of these groups are also a key element in understanding drivers of conflicts.
What I’m particularly interested in is when collective grievances between these different groups play out into conflict. Essentially, what are the tipping points for conflict or tensions?
To find these tipping points, I will explore past data to understand relationships between the drivers of conflict – looking at examples from past tipping points. Then I will work directly with communities on the ground to understand their current situations, and under what conditions climate shocks could increase local tensions.
In many ways Sahel is an example of a region that is currently affected by climate security conflict, can you elaborate on this and explain what is unique about the Sahel, the surrounding area? And why the Sahel is affected by climate conflict?
In the Sahel, there are rising water and land scarcity present, as well as overpopulation, migration, and many diverse religious and ethnic groups. In the past ten years, we have seen many terrorist groups entering the area and increasing armed conflicts. We can see a domino effect happening. Where we have food and water shortages for several periods, difficulties in establishing adaptive capacities, low employment: all these dynamics playing out, which I think is very crucial to the situation in the Sahel. Our work, is, therefore, very important and urgent.
What is the link between research, science, and policymakers – often it has to come from the state institutions to enact real lasting change?
My research is a step in the right direction towards understanding and influencing what needs to be done to protect local livelihoods whilst also strengthening climate-smart and sustainable agricultural practices. Our research looks at the relationships between environmental, social, economic, and political factors in the Sahel region. So, in that sense, it is crucial that we do this research so we can clearly speak what are the causes and effects related to increasing tensions.
In your work will you be applying a gender lens to analysis?
While my research is not specifically gender orientated, however, once we really get going there has to be a distinction made – when interviewing female to male farmers.
You can see also in Burkina Faso, the result of the extremist groups affects women disproportionately to male farmers – they are being pushed away from their land further south, despite their harvest being in the northern part.
So, the commute to get the harvest and bringing themselves in dangerous exposure to feed their children on a daily basis, is where we can see the gender dimension, or rather, gender inequality exacerbated by climate and conflict.
In the Sahel and all climate security research, one should at all times keep an understanding of issues around gender in mind to understand the social aspect. A gender lens is a cross-cutting component in so many people’s work because gender inequality is embedded in every topic that has a human-centered element.
Discover more about the CGIAR FOCUS Climate Security flagship initiatives.