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Last Updated: 09/01/2011
Conflict, Climate Change, and Water Security in Sub-Saharan Africa
Oluwole Akiyode

The paper is a review of literatures on conflict, climate change and water security on Sub-Saharan Africa. It identifies poverty as a threat in Sub-Saharan African countries that may have effect on its water security. It analyses in Sub-Saharan Africa region, the conflict trend of water security in correlation with climate change impacts. It advocates sustainable water management as the ameliorative and mitigation approaches to the negative effects of climate change on water security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Keywords: Climate change, water security, Sub-Saharan Africa, poverty and water management.

Climate Change and its variability is a phenomenon that cannot be pushed aside because of its potentail consequences and global scale. Its impacts have been suggested at different times by researchers to have favorable and unfavorable implications in different parts of the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to about 635.2 million people (cited in Oduaran & Nenty, 2008), and is always in the world’s news, being the hot zone of the African continent that has been noted for its volatility and instability. Some of its countries are in protracted conflict. Climate change has been implicated by many literatures to multiply these tensions.

Natural resources are supposed to be the economic backbone of Sub-Saharan African countries. Some of these natural resources are also expected to be vulnerable to climate change. Experiments have suggested that conflict can be driven by natural resource degradation, scarcity and by competitive control of areas where resources are abundant (Myers 2004). Several researchers and authors have corroborated this position, with particular emphasis on water resources. Water is a natural resource of immense importance for every facet of life. Therefore, its potential distortion by climate change may interfere with human security, which has been proposed to be connected to water security.

This conflict tendency of the imminent effects of climate change in the world was also supported by the statement made by United Nations Secretary General, Ban ki Moon in March 1, 2007, when he said:

“The majority of the United Nations' work still focuses on preventing and ending conflict, but the danger posed by war to all of humanity and to our planet is at least matched by the climate crisis and global warming… [the effects of climate change are] likely to become a major driver of war and conflict.”

This statement shows why climate change should be given utmost research and policy consideration in every facets of our society.

This paper identifies poverty as a threat in Sub-Saharan Africa countries that will be exacerbated by water scarcity, analyzes the conflict implications of the supposed effects of climate change on water security in Sub-Saharan Africa, and advocates for sustainable water management as an ameliorative and mitigation approach to water security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Poverty, Water Security and Climate Change in Sub-Sahara Africa

Many countries and its people in Sub-Saharan Africa are regarded as poor. These poverty levels are in variations. Poverty is a threat that affects every facets of human society, including water security. Poverty and conflict are sometimes linked together by researchers, conflict having been seen as both a cause and a consequence of poverty (Brown and Crawford, 2009). At the same time, human dignity and development have at most times been hindered in Sub-Saharan Africa by continued conflict.

The World Bank (2010) Poverty Data gives the statistical data of the Sub-Saharan Africa poverty headcount ratio in 2005 as $1.25 a day (PPP): 50.9%, and $2 a day (PPP): 72.9%. This data attetsts to the extraordiary level of poverty being witnessed in the region. The conflict atmosphere in some of the nations in the Sub-Sahara Africa has visible socio-economic implications on sustainable development and invariably exacerbates the impoverishment of the people.

Laplante (2009) surmised that there is existing empirical evidence clearly demonstrating a positive correlation between poverty (or economic development) and the impacts of climate change. Several researchers have also interlinked poverty to climate change vulnerability and adaptation (Mckee and Suhriki, 2005 cited in Confalonieri, 2005, Watson et. al., 1997 cited in O’Brien and Leicheko 2002, AFP, 2007). This poverty and climate change nexus may have implications for water security, thereby instigating stress on the people.

As I have argued in previous papers, “Water is practically an issue tied with the existence of life because of its importance in nearly every area of development including sustaining life on the planet earth” (Akiyode, 2010). Water security is important to environmental sustainability and paramount to the sustenance of societal peace. Therefore, the goal of human society and challenges of the world’s poor countries including Sub-Saharan Africa must be to achieve water security (Grey and Sadoff 2007).

Water Security and Sub-Saharan Africa

This paper aligns with Grey and Sadoff’s (2007) article “Sink or Swim? Water security for growth and development” where water security is considered in terms of the hydrological environment (water resources available), socio-economic environment (structure of economy), and the future environment (changes caused by climate change). Therefore, this section of the article builds on Grey and Sadoff’s concetual framework.

To begin with, the hydrological environment of Sub-Saharan Africa differs from one place to another. The data for the African continent, which encompasses that of Sub-Saharan Africa, depicts about 69% of its population living under conditions of relative water abundance (Vörösmarty et al., 2005 cited in APF, 2007). Also, 25% of Africa’s population (about 200 million people) has been experiencing high water stress while three-quarters of African countries are in zones where small reductions in rainfall could cause large declines in river water (APF, 2007). It was recorded that one-third of the people in Africa lives in drought-prone areas and is vulnerable to the impacts of droughts (World Water Forum, 2000 cited in Brown and Crawford, 2009). Climate change is likely to distort the hydrological environment of Sub-Saharan Africa, instigating additional water stress.

The socio-economic environment of Sub-Saharan Africa has impacted its water security because of challenges like endemic poverty; poor governance; limited access to capital and global markets; ecosystem degradation; complex disasters and conflicts (Boko et al., 2007 cited in Brown, 2007). Furthermore, it is expected that some countries that are currently not experiencing water stress will become at risk of water stress because of climate change (Brown and Crawford, 2009).

Climate change has been considered a ‘threat multiplier’, making existing concerns more complex and intractable (CAN, 2007 cited in Brown and Crawford, 2009). The additional pressures on water security may not augur well for Sub-Saharan Africa because of its political and socio-economic development which has been implicated in conflict.

Climate Change and Water Security in Sub-Saharan Africa

The issues of water war or conflict have been a focus of discourse among researchers, governmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations and policy makers for about 30 years now, and Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the targets of this paradigm. This was complemented with the verbal hostility exhibited by countries sharing water resources towards the end of the twentieth century. The “verbal conflict” tends to validate the water war or water conflict concept.

Therefore, in the event of the postulation of water conflict concept by some authors and policy makers, the analysis of climate change impacts on water security is essential. Since climate change is expected to lead to reduced-water availability in countries that are already water scarce and an increase in the variability with which water is delivered (Hirji and Ibrekk, 2001 cited in Grey and Sardoff, 2007). Sub-Saharan Africa has a warm climate and exposed to inconsistent rains (Brown and Crawford, 2009). Availability of water resource is the backbone of agricultural resource. Water variability may be affective to agriculture which is the major or prime economic factor in most of the Sub-Saharan African countries. Threats created by absence of rainfall in Sub-Saharan Africa always have negative implications on its water security leading to incidence of drought in different places. It has been postulated that through climate change the yields from rain-fed in some countries agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020 (IPCC, 2007 cited in AFP, 2007).

When one considers countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia that have experienced persistent conflict, regionally suffering more deaths than any other part of Africa through drought over the last century – one estimate gave as 600,000 (Brown and Crawford, 2009) – the water security implications are overwhelming.

Drought also accounted for 31 per cent of all natural disasters in Africa between 1975 and 2002 while floods accounted for another 26 per cent (ISDR, 2004 cited in Brown and Crawford, 2009). Already these disasters have lead to state and regional insecurity, compounding the tragedy of armed conflict.

The importance of sustainable water security is vividly portrayed by Lundqvist and Gleick (cited in Amery, 2002) who argue “that unless people have access to their basic water needs, in order that they can grow their food and live a healthy and hygienic lifestyle, ecological disruption, population dislocation, ‘large-scale human misery and suffering’ will result. They further posited that it contributes ‘to the risk of social and military conflict.’”

Conflict Trends, Water Security and Climate Change in Sub-Saharan Africa

According to the Africa Partnership Forum, “Climate models show that 600,000 square kilometres classified as moderately water constrained will experience severe water limitations” (AFP, 2007). Such models project that by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are to be exposed to an increase of water stress due to climate change (IPCC, 2007b cited in AFP, 2007). This expectation demands that policies be developed for migration and water management in Sub-Saharan Africa.

  1. Migration

It has been found that “[d]raughts and other natural incidents, added to political misrule and economic mismanagement, have collectively thrown millions of Africans to migrate towards other, more stable African nations” (Oduaran & Nenty, 2008). There is migration internally within each nation, as well as externally, across borders.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the most diverse region in the continent with varied cultures and languages. The political and institutional responses to migrants are an important factor in conflict buildup (Brown and Crawford, 2009). The coexistence of people with different cultures, backgrounds and probably different languages that may be in contention for the same water resource for livelihoods may instigate conflict.

The sustainability of agriculture, which is the economic base of most people in Sub-Saharan Africa, is also dependent on its water security. About 60% of the people living in Sub-Saharan Africa depend on livestock for some part of their livelihood (Thornton et al., 2002; Thomas & Rangnekar, 2004 cited in Thornton, 2008). Distortion of its water security in agricultural areas may lead to further migration and displacement. Sometimes people and their livestock are moved from different places to another in case of drought and floods in search of water and food thereby necessitating their competition for available water. This too may engender conflict.

Coastal cities in Sub-Saharan Africa attract migrants from other parts of the region because of their relative socioeconomic status, however, these coastal communities are among the most susceptible to climate change and its variability (IPCC, 2001 and Monitul and Mizral, 2003 cited in Dolan and Walker, 2004). Furthermore, urbanization develops in these coastal communities alongside slums, which are inherently vulnerable.

  1. Water Management

Sustainable water management is essential for the socio-economic development of Sub-Saharan Africa, and development, in turn, is a key for conflict prevention and the better management of climate change. Water management for sustainable use depends on infrastructural development. A wholesome water supply is simply not availible in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa has several trans-boundary rivers. This can significantly complicate the task of managing and developing water resources to achieve water security, owing to inter-jurisdictional competition both within and between nations (Grey and Sadoff, 2007).

This has been promulgated by researchers as the basis for predictions of impending “water wars” or other resource-based conflict. Although evidence is by no means conclusive, Gleditsch et al. (2006 cited in Brown and Crawford, 2009) found that shared river basins increases the likelihood of conflict between neighboring countries. This is of concern when climate change may threaten and put pressure on water resources because of rainfall variability which makes some places wetter and others drier (Kundzewics et. al., 2007).

Africa has 50 rivers with trans-boundary nature, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, all of which are expected to face increasing water scarcity and stress which could lead to water conflict (Aston, 2002 and De Wit & Jack, 2006 cited in Gueye et. al. 2009). Additionally, the rivers Kunene, Okvanago, Zambezi, Limpopo, Orange and Nile were identified by the United Nations as being “at risk” for the onset of tensions and conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa (ISDR, 2004 cited in Brown and Crawford, 2009).


This paper has identified the importance of water security to the sustainable development of Sub-Saharan Africa. It agrees that climate change and its variability may have impacts on water security in the Sub-Saharan Africa region creating unavoidable pressure on the people through migration, displacement, food insecurity and impoverishment that may lead to conflict.

Sustainable water management policies are recommended in view of an impending climate change. This will involve infrastructural development. It also supports the poverty reduction and alleviation principles and programs as a tool of economic empowerment that will reduce conflict tendency. As a recommendation, it aligns with laudable trans-boundary river basin management that will embrace peace building and development.


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Oluwole Akiyode holds a Bachelor degree in Biochemistry from the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria, Master in Environmental Management from the University of Lagos, Akoka, Nigeria and Master of Arts (MA) in Environmental Security and Peace from the University of Peace, San Jose, Costa Rica. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute for Environment Research & Development (IERD), Ota, Nigeria.