When "Rains turn to Dust" in Mali

Part I of our "Rain to Dust" series based on the new ICRC report on climate and war, zooms into the ways climate change is exacerbating conflict in Mali.

Nomad boys fill leather bags with water from a well at an oasis in Mali's Sahara Desert, north of Timbuktu (Credit: Keystone)

A major new report on Climate and War, by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), “When Rain turns to Dust” describes how 12 of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate disruption are also at war.  To illustrate some of the messages in our story from last week, we zoomed in on the Central African Republic and on Mali, now seeing the worst civil unrest in decades. Just over the weekend, anti-government protests left at least four people dead in street clashes in the capital city, Bamako. Indirectly, however, the unrest seen in cities is also exacerbated by what is happening in the countryside. For many farmers, facing long droughts followed by torrential rains, as well as civil violence and insecurity, migration to cities is the only option that remains. To hear more about the situation on the ground, we talked to Lemba Bisimwa, Water and Habitat coordinator of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bamako.

What is the overall situation in Mali?

The ICRC works mainly in the north in the regions of Kidal and Timbuktu, where the conflict started following the secessionist elections in 2012 and spread to the centre towards Segou and Mopti. Fighting between government and pro-independence forces is still intense. As the inter-community threat spreads, criminal activities flourish and violence intensifies. Unfortunately, it is also the most vulnerable part [of the country] in terms of climate. The north is disadvantaged in terms of access to natural resources; two-thirds of the country lies in the Sahara Desert strip.

Are the effects of climate change clearly visible in this region?

Figures from Mali's Directorate of Meteorological and Climatic Applications show that the country is being hit hard by climate change. Mali emits very few greenhouse gases — 0.06% of the global total — but it absorbs a lot [of global warming impacts]. Over the last 30 years, the temperature has risen by 0.7% while rainfall has decreased significantly. In the southern part, the wettest part of the country, we could have 1200 mm of water per year 30 years ago. That's over now. In the north, the water cycle is altered, leading to pockets of water stress: wells and boreholes are drying up and the level of the Niger River has fallen. Some Malian climate experts believe that by 2025 the temperature is likely to rise by 2% and rainfall will decrease by 10-15%.

With climate change, is your emergency mandate changing to become more permanent?

The ICRC responds to the consequences of the conflict that began in 2012. There are still pockets of conflict resurgence. Recently we intervened on the border with Niger, in the Anderaboukand region, following military operations that forced the population to move to areas without water. We have been drilling a little deeper in order to provide water to these displaced people. But our action is also long-term with projects that are spread over five years. The problem of access to water and basic social services existed prior to the conflict, but it has added another layer and aggravated the precariousness. Since 1962, Mali's population has increased five-fold to 20 million people. However, basic infrastructure and essential services have not kept pace. Today, in the northern part of the country, access to [adequate] drinking water is less than 30% while the overall rate is 68%.

How does this manifest itself in your work in the field?

We see effects at the start and the end of the rainy season cycle, in terms of both agricultural production and the scarcity of drinking water. We face a 30% risk of failure when we start digging wells or boreholes.

Food security and climate change are inseparable issues?

They are intrinsically linked. The risks are high in terms of rural exodus. Cities, which already have high population concentrations are urbanising very rapidly. We are seeing the effects of human and animal migration (transhumance) in terms of land conflicts especially in the central part of the country, Mopti and Segou. These are at the root of community and economic conflicts of interest between nomads and sedentary people. Populations in areas of very high water stress — which are more intense as one moves upwards towards the Sahara — can no longer cultivate their land. So they move southwards, creating tensions with the communities who graze their animals there. This is where conflicts between sedentary people and pastoralists begin.

Is climate change one of the causes of the conflict that has plagued Mali for the past eight years?

It is not a direct cause, but an underlying one. It feeds it. Inter-community conflicts start with these population movements.

How many displaced persons are there in Mali?

It is difficult to distinguish between the people displaced because of climate change and those displaced as a direct result of the conflict. There are three categories of displaced people in Mali: those who flee fighting and banditry; those who are displaced by climate factors such as floods or lack of water and thus can no longer practice agriculture; and those who are economically motivated, who move to the big centres to survive. In all, it’s 250,000 people.

What solutions are you putting in place?

Actions to provide access to drinking water help both against the effects of conflict and climate change. We are drilling wells or boreholes equipped with pumps that run on solar energy. We provide water to market gardening groups — community associations that produce vegetables and pulses. Vegetables are scarce in this desert region, and these groups have gardens of one hectare or more, but most of the time they lack water. By providing income, this contributes to their resilience. We are doing the same type of drilling for pastoralists. Since 2015, we have also begun building micro-dams in the Kidal region, which retain water during the rainy season, infiltrate the soil and replenish aquifers. In the regions where we operate, people are no longer displaced, thanks to this infrastructure, and this helps reduce the risk of conflict.