Displacement and Environment in Africa: What is the relationship?


Droughts combined with population growth, a lack of sustainable land and water management, natural disasters, political conflicts and tensions and other factors have resulted in massive population movements across Africa.

Displacement in Africa is the result of a multitude of causes including struggles for political power, communal violence, disputes over land, floods, storms and other such natural hazards. More than half of the world’s fragile states are in sub-Saharan Africa, and some of these states have the largest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Africa has more countries affected by displacement than any other continent or region, and was home to more than 15 million internally displaced persons in 2015.

Displacement itself can have environmental impacts, causing environmental degradation. Rapid urbanization or poorly managed refugee camps and IDPs settlements can put pressure on scarce water, energy and food resources, and lead to uncontrolled waste disposal. However, displacement can also act as a ‘release valve’ by reducing environmental pressures in a fragile ecosystem.

According to the 2016 Global Report on Internal Displacement, there were 27.8 million new displacements in 127 countries during 2015, roughly the equivalent of the populations of New York City, London, Paris and Cairo combined; of the total, 8.6 million were associated with conflicts and violence in 28 countries, while 19.2 million were associated with disasters in 113  countries.

The growing intensity of meteorological disasters due to climate change, coupled with the effects of environmental degradation is likely to continue being a factor behind human displacement. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) predicts there will be 200 million environmentally-displaced people by the year 2050 with major effects on countries of origin, transit countries, as well as receiving countries.

Individuals and communities displaced by disasters and climate change and those displaced by conflicts often experience similar trauma and deprivation. They may have protection needs and vulnerabilities comparable to those whose displacement is provoked by armed violence or human rights abuses. Climate change is expected to further exacerbate the stress that fragile states are already facing.

The regions of the Horn of Africa and the Sahel face high risk for climate change–related instability. For instance, with the effects of climate change, existing demographic pressures and heavy reliance on agriculture, pastoralism, and other natural resource– based livelihoods are expected to increase food and water insecurity, as well as exacerbate challenges to public health in those regions. A 2011 report by UNEP observed that in the Sahel, these resources demands may lead to competition for resources, local-level conflict, migration and ultimately broader political destabilization.

“Changes in the regional climate are impacting issues linked to the availability of natural resources essential to livelihoods in the region, as well as food insecurity. Along with important social, economic and political factors, this can lead to migration, conflict or a combination of the two” Source: Livelihood Security Climate Change, Migration and Conflict in the Sahel.

In Africa, environmental degradation and food insecurity are related to floods and other factors such as diminishing pasture for cattle as well as water, firewood and other natural resource scarcities. Such factors contribute to displacement, resulting in increasing competition for scarce resources which also contributes to armed conflict, particularly between pastoralists and sedentary communities. This is especially pronounced in the Sahel (Lake Chad Basin), Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, all of which have large pastoralist populations who migrate according to seasonal patterns and climatic variations.

“The relationship between displacement and the environment is well established in Africa. People leave places with slow-onset environmental degradation, such as drought and desertification and continue to flee rapid on-set environmental emergencies such as tropical storms and flash floods,” said Saidou Hamani, Regional Coordinator for Disasters and Conflict sub-programme, UNEP Regional Office for Africa.

Human displacements are not a new phenomenon but the current realities of climate change are contributing to the intensity, frequency and reach of both slow and rapid onset environmental crises. While climate change and environmental degradation set the stage for displacements, factors of vulnerability such as poverty, and the quality of infrastructure, are key determinants in these displacements. Appropriate environmental-displacement management models encompass efforts to mitigate displacements. For example, this can be achieved through responses in joint humanitarian and development initiatives that promote  human development; preventing forced displacement by reducing environmental impacts of human populations; preparing for potential displacements and relocations through appropriate preparedness and response measures; effectively managing displacements (particularly mass displacements) when they occur; mitigating the impacts  on the environment and host communities and most importantly, addressing the root causes of displacements through durable solutions.