The Arc Of Tension

This series of maps illustrates the overlapping challenges of climate, migration, and security in northwestern Africa.

This series of maps illustrates the overlapping challenges of climate, migration, and security in northwestern Africa.



Too often, the connections between the Islamic Maghreb, the Sahel, and the Niger Delta go unstudied. The UN, the US, and most international bodies consider these regions separately, but addressing the climate, migration, and security nexus will require a new approach.
Climate change will exacerbate difficulties in areas already faced with numerous environmental challenges. Rising temperatures, drought, desertification, erosion, flooding, and sea-level rise all threaten different areas along the axis from Nigeria through Niger, Algeria, and Morocco. Niger and northern Nigeria have faced more frequent droughts and flooding, along with temperature rises of between 0.5 and 1℃ over the last three decades. The continuing drying of Lake Chad, and rising temperatures in southern Algeria and northern Niger further complicate the picture. Finally, Lagos in the south, and many parts of Algeria and Morocco’s northern coasts are under threat from rising sea levels. Erosion also poses a threat along the Mediterranean coast as it eats into already limited arable land.
Northwest Africa also faces numerous security challenges, underpinned by the wide availability of small arms. Nigeria has faced a long-standing insurgency in the Niger Delta and growing religious tensions further north; more than 800 people have been killed in religious violence in Jos, in central Nigeria, in 2011. The country also faces the rising threat of Boko Haram, which has orchestrated attacks of increasing violence against police, civilian, and UN targets in Abuja and the north and northeast. Niger faces widespread problems of security and governance, and clashes over water and rangeland are common. Additionally, the nation’s mineral resources have provoked conflict, for example the Tuareg rebellion over 2007–2009. This conflict raged in the Agadez Region, a major hub on the migratory route north. The many large ungoverned spaces of Algeria offer refuge for violent actors ranging from simple bandits to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Algeria has experienced close to 1,000 incidents of terrorism since September 11th, 2001, including kidnappings and high profile bombings. While Morocco remains one of the most stable states in the region and a reliable Western partner on security issues, its status as the endpoint for migrants trying to reach Europe raises the prospect of growing instability. There have been clashes between migrants and police at the borders of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and Al-Qaeda has called for the “liberation” of these areas from Spanish control.
As early as 2003, reports indicated some 65,000 migrants passed through Niger, particularly Agadez, on their way north to Algeria, Morocco, and Europe. These flows are set to grow as the destructive effects of climate change take a toll on the dominant activities of farming, herding, and fishing. Nigeria is already losing about 3,500 square kilometers of land to desertification each year, and the pace of that loss may increase with the effects of climate change. The line at which rainfall maintains sufficient groundwater for farming has been shifted southward in recent years, according to the most recent UN reports. As these trends combine with rapid projected population growth throughout the Sahel and West Africa, the strains placed on the countries along this migratory route will increase.
US foreign aid has done little to adapt to these new challenges. Overall, US foreign assistance in the region is approximately $668 million, with Nigeria receiving $614 million, primarily for health and police training; Algeria $2.61 million for counter terrorism and military training; Niger $16.9 million, mostly for food aid; and Morocco $35.3 million for military and development assistance. The IMF currently has no loans to the four countries. Algeria has accepted $82 million from the IFC, but no loans from the World Bank. There is an opportunity for the US to build capacity in the region and head off the potential humanitarian and security disasters threatened by the nexus of climate change, migration, and conflict.
The cost of promoting livelihood security (irrigation, vocational training, etc.), disaster preparedness, and humane regulation of migrants is minimal in the context of US security spending, and pale in comparison to the potential costs of inaction today.

  • Water scarcity, desertification, rising sea levels, and other effects of climate change will pose serious adaptation and mitigation challenges for African states.
  • Weak governance, internal conflict, and transnational terrorism already put pressure on the capacity of states along the arc of tension.
  • Existing internal and international migration routes in NW Africa cross areas of climate and security vulnerability.

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