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Report: Climate change will have huge impact on Sahel

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A new report, “Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics,” contains some grim news for the Sahel. Greg Mills and Terence McNamee of the Brenthurst Foundation write in the Independent Online about the report’s implications for Mali. Noting that the report “predicts that global climate change will curb agricultural output in Mali more than any other country, except its West African neighbours Niger and Burkina Faso,” Mills and McNamee outline the interlocking challenges Mali faces. These include security problems (such as AQIM), rapid population growth, weak employment prospects for youth, and entrenched poverty. The authors see potential for economic growth in mining and cotton, but they recommend serious political and economic reform, such as passage of the new family code. They argue that the next president, to be elected in 2012, will have to make tough choices that could strain the consensus-based fabric of Malian democracy:

Stability in Mali has been achieved in part through a strong tradition of inclusiveness and building broad consensus, ensuring that no groups are excluded. Yet this otherwise positive trait makes it almost impossible for the government to make hard decisions in the national interest, the kind of decisions that are to the short-term detriment of some but in the long run help the country’s development.


If the government avoids the hard choices, its much-admired democracy is sure to falter under the weight of young Malians’ unfulfilled expectations.

The thrust of Mills and McNamee’s suggested reforms makes me uneasy – will further privatization of key industries really benefit Mali, and is it really to Mali’s advantage if politicians force through unpopular reforms? – but their point about Mali’s challenges is irrefutable. Moreover, their argument that “there is nothing Mali can realistically do to mitigate climate change either, but it can adapt to it” sounds ugly, but is correct to the extent that Mali cannot force more powerful countries to stop polluting. Government policy (or even regional initiatives like a proposed “great green wall“) can only do so much to mitigate the effects of climate change, and in some cases these policies carry significant downsides, even in ecological terms. Mali is in a bad spot.

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The regional implications are equally frightening. Mali’s problems, as Mills and McNamee say in the beginning, are also Burkina Faso’s and Niger’s. The political landscape varies from place to place, but both countries have their own serious problems: Niger faces an influx of refugees from Libya, recurring droughts, and the challenge of AQIM, while Burkina Faso saw weeks of protests and mutinies this spring. Niger and Burkina Faso also, like Mali, have rapidly growing populations and weak economies. As the physical temperature of these countries rises, the political temperature seems likely to rise as well. Leaders in all three countries, already in complicated positions, will face even tougher choices going forward.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.