North Africa is by most measures already an exceedingly hostile environment. It has relatively little arable land, next to no rainfall beyond the narrow coastal strip, and extreme temperature highs, which regularly top 45°C. Such is the region’s stark aridity that one can travel from the Nile river to the Atlantic Ocean, some 4000km (2500 miles), without stumbling on a single surface water source. These natural challenges have long posed considerable governance difficulties for regional states, who have struggled to bring development or prosperity to their poor, unsettled desert interiors. That failure has contributed to much of the Sahara’s emergence as a lawless node of discontent and instability.
Climate change has compounded these existing troubles and unleashed new ones. Ever-more unfavorable growing conditions are gutting agriculture at the same time as drought and other climate stresses are contributing to resource scarcity. With booming population growth, authorities are increasingly unable to match civic water and food needs. In a part of the world where nearly every country is mired in some sort of political or economic crisis, climate change is saddling overburdened and under-resourced authorities with more challenges than they’re equipped to face. The security and migration ramifications of inaction are likely to be profound for the region and nearby Europe. So far, relevant officials are displaying a glaring lack of urgency in tackling these risks.
Climate change forecast
Clear and dangerous trends are already emerging across North Africa. The Mediterranean is rising by up to 4mm a year, a rate that’s more than double the 20th century average, potentially imperilling much of the low-lying and densely-populated coasts of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Egypt’s Nile Delta is considered among the most vulnerable coastal regions in the world, particularly given that its soils are subsiding as fast as the waters are rising in places. Alexandria and other large urban centers are experiencing fiercer winter storms and more extensive flood damage and clean-up bills. In a possible harbinger of other troubles to come, farmers in some coastal reaches of Egypt and Algeria have been ditching their overly saline fields as saltwater infiltrates freshwater aquifers.
Droughts are also forecast to get even longer and more severe, further parching one of the world’s driest regions. Agriculture is suffering, particularly in rainfed swathes of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. In 2015-2016, an intense drought shrank Morocco’s grain production by 70%. Diminished average annual rainfall – of as little as 96mm in 2013 – has dropped per capita water availability to 274 m3 in the five North African states, well under the 1000 m3 that the World Bank defines as water scarcity. With less rain, farmers and municipalities alike have been over-exploiting alternative water sources. Aquifers have run dry under a number of Western Desert communities in Egypt; villages in parts of the northern Nile Delta complain that there’s no water left by the time the river reaches them.
And in another blow for both farmers and urbanites, temperatures are soaring – conceivably by up to 7°C by 2100. Agricultural yields have shrunk in parts of Egypt and other countries as crops and their planters struggle to adapt to new growing conditions, while public health systems across the continent report elevated rates of respiratory disease and heat-related admissions in summer. Amid ongoing desertification, which is eating into scarce farmland on the Sahara’s periphery, and more violent sandstorms, the natural landscape on which so many depend is already changing beyond recognition.
Domestic policy challenges
For regional governments, these stresses could scarcely be less welcome. As in other parts of the world, climate change is acting as a ‘threat multiplier,’ scattering fuel on an array of smoldering problems. Bleaker farming conditions across North Africa have shredded the rural economy, which has left many villages even poorer, even more resentful of the central governments they feel are failing them, and susceptible to the advances of armed non-state actors. From Egypt to Mali, jihadi groups appear to have enjoyed particular success in struggling parts of the countryside. The security-centric responses that most states have so far adopted have done little to address the underlying sources of rural discontent. Climate change’s worsening bite will likely only accelerate this crisis.
In cities, too, climate stresses are pushing state response mechanisms to the brink. With increasing numbers no longer able to make a decent living off the land, more and more rural North Africans are converging on urban areas, thereby overextending some already swelling mega-cities. Municipal authorities have failed to keep pace with housing, water, electricity, and other requirements as populations outstrip services. Cairo’s population has more than doubled in the last 30 years; Algeria’s coastal cities have swollen with rural migrants. Infrastructure damage from sea level rise and extreme weather patterns might place additional strain on state resources and decision-making capacities.
That gap in service distribution will likely only widen as climate stresses cut domestic food production and water availability. Already among the largest wheat importers in the world, Egypt, Algeria and their neighbors look set to buy in even more crop staples from abroad, a challenge for their over-burdened budgets. Shrinking farmland and trickier growing conditions are running up against rising demand. Per capita water shares, now less than a tenth of the global mean, will probably fall further. As these states have all learnt to their peril in the past, rising food prices and water shortages are a well-trodden path to instability.
North Africa is less than 20km from Europe at its narrowest point, and any drama on the south side of the Mediterranean tends to have serious repercussions for its counterparts to the north – and perhaps further afield. That’s likely doubly true of climate-related fallout. The number of migrants trying their luck at sea looks set to increase, posing considerable problems for Europe, where migration remains a touchy political lodestone. With few jobs in many urban areas for displaced rural North Africans, and limited skilled jobs in the bulging cities for better educated young men and women, Europe remains a tremendous attraction, despite the known risks, particularly now that many of the smuggling routes are well-established.
There’s every reason to believe, too, that the security situation in the Sahara will continue to fester, providing a fertile staging ground for extremist operations both within North Africa and outside. For as long as there are large numbers of desperate young men in jobless rural areas and overflowing urban slums, North Africa’s vast, uncontrollable desert interior will remain a security hotspot. These groups’ capacity to destabilize their own states by undermining everything from tourism to foreign investment to citizens’ confidence in their institutions will likely require international actors to bolster their support for regional governments, who in most cases have shown themselves unequal to the task.
Though many regional governments pay lip service to the threat of climate change, at times seeing it as a useful foil for their own failures, few have done much to prepare for it. Morocco, a continental leader in renewable energy, is something of an exception. Environment ministries are largely toothless ‘advisory’ departments, and environmental protection and economic development are still, for the most part, seen as opposing forces. In almost every instance, industry and the promise of job creation win out. Among key security services, there’s been a reluctance or inability to recognize climate security risks, so wed are many officials to seeing terrorism and/or popular unrest through old paradigms.
If North Africa is to manage its climate security risks, it will require considerable international assistance in implementing country-wide reforms to agriculture and other sectors, along with outside expertise in putting together the institutional framework to maintain this work. The region is already struggling with the early fallout from climate change. Without prompt large-scale action, the situation is likely to escalate, perhaps dramatically.
Peter Schwartzstein is a Journalist in Residence at the Center for Climate and Security. Based in Cairo since 2013, he covers water, food and environmental security issues across 20 countries in the Middle East and Africa, with a particular focus on how climate change is contributing to conflict and terrorism in the region.