Migration: We ain’t seen nothing yet
A doctor speaks to refugees rescued in the Mediterranean Sea | Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images
The uncoordinated and inadequate management of migration flows — 1.3 million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe last year alone — has been rightly characterized as a governance and humanitarian disaster. The main obstacle is a lack of political will and collective action, so the latest U.N. leaders’ summit on the global refugee crisis was promising for committing to greater funding and closer cooperation to restore order. But if we cast our gaze forward, past the immediate politics of the crisis, there is far greater trouble ahead.
A perfect storm of climate change, food scarcity and governance failures is gathering, and could create migration flows on a scale that dwarfs what we are facing today. To ward off a catastrophe on a global scale, national leaders will have to pursue far more ambitious measures to combat climate change and bolster African agricultural infrastructures specifically.
Despite significant progress in recent decades, West Africa remains one of the least food-secure regions in the world. The number of undernourished West Africans — 33 million — has not declined since 2000. Looking forward, it is unlikely that current programs to lift people out of subsistence living will be enough to meet the region’s needs, given its projected increase in population.
Most climate models predict that temperatures throughout Africa will rise faster than the global average during the remainder of the 21st century.
As Europe, China and India prepare for demographic decline, West Africa is entering its most explosive phase of population growth. According to new U.N. projections, the total population of the region will more than quadruple by the end of the century, from today’s 360 million to some 1.6 billion.
Nigeria’s population is predicted to swell to 750 million inhabitants by 2100, which would make it the third largest country by population behind India and China. While this growth will, of course, create opportunities for economic development, the region’s farming infrastructure is not prepared to meet the growing demand. Agricultural intensification — an engine of both food security and economic growth — is already not keeping pace. The consequences could be catastrophic.
Consider cereals and starchy roots, which together comprise two-thirds of West African diets: Since 2000, the total population of West Africa has increased by 54 percent, while average cereals yields have increased by only 25 percent, and starchy root yields have declined modestly. Imports of these staple crops account for less than 10 percent of supply, making regional food security highly dependent on domestic output. A rapid and thorough transition from subsistence to modern agriculture is critical to expanding the region’s food supply.
Climate change threatens to further destabilize the situation. Most climate models predict that temperatures throughout Africa will rise faster than the global average during the remainder of the 21st century.
Throughout the tropics and especially in tropical West Africa, this will lead to new climate regimes as early as the late 2030s — 10 to 20 years sooner than the global average — as a result of low natural climate variability in the region.
Historically, predictable growing conditions have informed farmers’ almanacs, helping subsistence farmers to maximize yields. Small shifts carry outsized effects: not just higher temperatures but also more frequent and severe floods and droughts.
Disruption of West African climate patterns could devastate the region’s food security and prospects for economic growth. Lacking the technology and infrastructure to anticipate and adapt for climate change, West African producers could face widespread, catastrophic crop failure even as demand soars. Even localized disruptions to supplies will cause prices to rise in a region where food already accounts for 45-85 percent of the expenditures of its poorest citizens.
West Africa will bear the brunt of the effects of global warming despite being responsible for a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Without adequate preparation and investment, climate change will be disastrous for West Africa. Famine and mass migration on a scale that surpasses current flows to Europe are likely. If undernourishment rates simply hold steady, by 2100 there will be 160 million hungry and increasingly desperate West Africans, a figure equal to the combined present populations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Climate change is already reshaping the West African climate, and growing economic losses may already be unavoidable. The worst effects could, however, be forestalled with timely investments in vulnerable economies and societies. In particular, agricultural intensification and modernization can mitigate crop losses and facilitate nimble, coordinated responses to shifting farming conditions.
West Africa will bear the brunt of the effects of global warming despite being responsible for a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions. We must reinforce the region’s climatic resilience in order to mitigate disaster and avoid replicating the desperation and chaos of the recent refugee crisis on an unimaginably larger scale.
Brian Walsh is a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.