A young child stands on a fishing boat in Lake Chad
Flickr/United Nations Chad

A young child stands on a fishing boat in Lake Chad.

This is part two in an article series discussing climate change, conflict, and the role of the United Nations Security Council. Read part one here.

On December 15, 2017, a group of United Nations (UN) member states and global leaders called an Arria-formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) titled “Climate Change: Preparing for the Security Implications of Rising Temperatures.” A panel of climate change experts engaged the UNSC in a conversation about climate change and its effect on conflict and security. The panel held the meeting specifically to call the UNSC to action in assessing and combating the detrimental human effects of change now and in the future. This article will expand on one of the issues addressed in the meetinginstability and terror in the Lake Chad region.


Accompanying their recognition of overt climate change effects, such as natural disasters and destructive weather patterns, many speakers at the Arria-formula meeting addressed the insidious tendency of climate change to inflame existing conflict. Speakers referred to the Lake Chad region numerous times both as an example of physical climate caused devastation, and of climate elevated conflict. One of the intentions of this meeting was to discuss the assessment of climate effects on conflict. Studying the Lake Chad region proves how complicated making concrete assessments can be, and why it is often a challenge for the UNSC to come to consensus.


The Lake Chad Basin touches seven African countries, with the lake itself sitting near the intersection of four—Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The lake is a crucial source of food, water, and employment for millions in the fishing and agricultural industries. Drought and inefficient water use, however, have significantly depleted the lake’s waters, creating a host of problems. In addition to the resource insecurity crisis, the shrinking of Lake Chad has led to violent conflict over resource allocation, and the rise of terrorism in the region.


This is a security concern.


With severely limited access to sustainable livelihoods, youth are highly susceptible to terrorist groups’ ideologies. Groups such as Boko Haram escalate their influence by attacking islands and communities within the Lake Chad region, utilizing fear as a recruitment technique.


This is a security concern.


The situation in the Lake Chad region is dire, yet its origins are frustratingly nuanced. Weather patterns are inconsistent, population is booming, and migration is not always measurable. Although some farmers are using the waters of Lake Chad to irrigate their crops in an unsustainable fashion, severe drought in the area has rendered irrigation a necessity. Extraneous factors, such as colonial Europe’s culturally indiscriminate drawing of borders, have certainly played a heavy-handed role in the conflict as well. These factors—intertwined and intergenerational—contribute to the UNSC’s difficulty in agreeing on how to assess and address security threats.


The United Nations’ acknowledgment of climate as a conflict stressor is relatively recent. In 2007, the UNSC held its first ever debate about the impact of climate change on global peace and security. The United Kingdom called this meeting to discuss the relationship between the use of energy sourced from fossil fuels and its impact on climate and security. The meeting featured interventions from a wide range of speakers, from the world’s largest energy spenders to the often under-represented small island nations.


The fact that this formal reckoning has come so late—combined with the discrepancy that some governments see between climate protection and economic prosperity—serves as a further frustration in the effort to combat the issue. Although there has been acknowledgement of the intersectionality of climate change and conflict, many member states continue to present prevention attempts, or push back with arguments about the varying drivers of conflict. For example, at the Arria-formula meeting in December 2017, the representative of Algeria highlighted the ambiguous correlation between climate and conflict by posing several questions to the panel and member states in attendance. How can we measure if conflict is caused by climate or “man-made [sic] evil?” Does climate change provoke conflict, or does conflict prevent cooperation on climate change? Conversations about prevention and assessment never cease at the United Nations, as these topics seem virtually impossible to measure.


Nevertheless, speakers and state representatives did not arrive at the meeting without ideas. Representatives of small island nations spoke up for themselves at the Arria-formula meeting just as they had in 2007. The speaker for the Maldives urged the UN to respond comprehensively to the needs of all member states, as small countries are not equally represented on the Security Council. Additionally, Indonesia’s speaker reiterated a point that Caitlin Werrell, President of the Center for Climate and Security, had made during the opening panel—that inclusive dialogue and action is paramount to finding a solution.


Werrell warned attendees of the risk of confining climate change to a one-dimensional cause, and encouraged communication that acknowledges its presence across platforms. Discourse surrounding climate change is often limited to environmental departments and agencies, which are not included in decision-making processes concerning security. Thus, Werrell proposed appointing senior climate change and security positions with direct and regular access to the UN Security General and UNSC to allow reliable information to be both presented and heard at the highest levels.


It is not currently feasible to perfectly assess and analyze a topic as convoluted as the effect of climate change on conflict. This acknowledgement is discouraging, especially as more and more  people in vulnerable situations are displaced and killed, only to have the global community weigh itself down trying to find the exact source of a multi-faceted issue. The effects of climate change are impacting communities like the Lake Chad Region right now, and although prevention is obviously important, there is an immediate need for international cooperation to address current threats.


Abby Hershberger is the Program Assistant at Mennonite Central Committee’s UN Office.