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Mali: The Effects of Climate Change in Conflict-Affected Areas.

UN / Marco Dormino. Djenné, Mali, 2015. licensed under Creative Commons / Flickr

Over the last decades, Mali has suffered immensely from rising temperatures, variability in rainfall, and armed conflict. These factors have severely hindered the country’s economic development and de-stabilized its ability to guarantee food security. The frequency of climate-induced shocks has led to the decline of people’s livelihoods, human displacement and changes in migration patterns. Since Mali is a country composed of tribes that are both sedentary farmers and nomadic herders, changes that affect the seasonal migrations of these groups have also contributed to conflict over resource use and distribution, exacerbating ethnic divides. Therefore, the following article will assess Mali’s colonial legacies and the roots of its ethnic conflicts while exemplifying that climate variability further fuels these existing clashes.

Background Overview: Conflict & Colonial Legacies in Mali.

After gaining independence from France in 1960, Mali emerged from more than a century of colonial rule as a deeply impoverished country, similarly to other newly-formed nations in the Sahel region, suffering from the consequences of a colonialist heritage. During its first 30 years, Mali was ruled by one-party organizations. Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita, advanced the goals of the socialist US-RDA (Sudanese Union - African Democratic Rally) by prioritizing national development and promoting the “creation of an independent economy, the formation of a trained African workforce (known as cadres), and the development of a national culture” (De Jorio, 2013). However, Keito’s regime was unpopular with peasants, the army and merchants, which eventually led to a coup in 1968 by a group of army officials. During the following decade, the Malian population was led by the despotic Lieutenant Moussa Traoré from the Comité Militaire de Libération Nationale (CMLN). His rule was characterized by civil rights abuses, the liberalization of the Malian economy and endemic corruption. The lack of free elections coupled with the one-party government led to a series of uprisings and strikes during the spring of 1991. Soon after, on March 26th 1991, Colonial Touré piloted a coup that put an end to Traoré’s rule, marking a transition towards the development of a democratic state that held multiparty elections and drafted a new constitution.

The country’s colonial legacy has caused ongoing ethnic conflict. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, ethnic groups spread across colonial state boundaries grew increasingly dissatisfied with their government. This tension led to a low-intensity conflict between the Tuaregs and the Malian state in the 1990s, preceding a long period of tensions between the Islamist forces in northern Mali and the government, which significantly impacted Mali’s economic development today.

Harsh climate conditions throughout the country have also amplified political turmoil. Mali is a landlocked territory and has been disproportionately affected by climate change, which extensively hinders its economic and social development (Ayers and Huq, 2009). Soaring temperatures and fluctuations in annual rainfall have posed a significant threat to Mali’s climate-sensitive economy. Not only has climate change exacerbated the overall socio-political stability of the country, but it has also led to severe food insecurity and poor nutrition for millions of Malians. This article argues that the most effective way of tackling the effects of climate change in conflict-affected regions is by implementing strategies at the local, regional and national levels.

In some cases, economic decline in African countries can be linked to colonialism because colonial institutions created the mechanisms that preceded this decline. Mali is an example of such a phenomenon. In the 19th century, when France colonized West Africa, it destroyed all local empires and states in its path, establishing new borders for its acquired territory (Hashim, 2013). From colonialism, Mali inherited a large land-locked territory composed mostly of black Africans living in the southern region of the country, and a northern desert region, home to nomadic Arab tribes such as the Tuaregs. Colonial boundaries left the Tuareg people divided between five states; Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Libya and Algeria. From 1962 to 1964, the First Tuareg Rebellion erupted, led by Tuareg fighters dissatisfied with their government. The Malian Armed Forces were quick to respond, leading to a military occupation of the northern region and the elimination of rebel fighters. This occupation, along with socio-economic marginalization, further accentuated the deep-rooted resentment of the northerners in a country whose socialist policies caused escalating poverty and bankruptcy.

In the 1990s, rebel movements arose, divided along tribal lines, reflecting the power dynamics characteristic of the Tuareg society that originated from the alliances and hostilities created within the context of colonial penetration. One of the central rebel groups, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MPLA), achieved many victories over the Malian army during the 1990s. In 1990, the MPLA launched a movement for the liberation of Azawad, an area spreading across Kidal and Timbuktu. This rebellion occurred amid a severe drought that drastically affected livelihoods and further politically and economically marginalised the country's northern region. After consecutive Islamist victories in the north, western powers started considering diplomatic intervention and military planning to restore Bamako’s sovereignty. In 2013, conflict continued to unravel in Mali, pushing France to intervene to eliminate extremist occupation of the north and restore the legitimacy and authority of the government in this region. The French government feared was that if Islamist groups settled in northern Mali, the area would soon become “yet another haven for terrorists threatening fragile African states and establishing a sanctuary in close proximity with Europe.”

Mali is stuck in what Collier coins a “conflict trap”, where a country that starts its independence with low income and slow growth is prone to civil war. This trap operates cyclically; poverty causes low opportunity cost, provoking armed conflict and destroying the capital and infrastructure. Moreover, Collier also argues that countries caught in conflict traps are not only susceptible to rebellion but are also more at threat from coups. Mali is a prime example of this trend. In early 2012, the MPLA rebellion gave rise to capturing strategic towns country's north , culminating in a political crisis and coup d’état. This uprising led to international military intervention and a UN peacekeeping mission to stabilize the country. Mali’s diverse population of herders in the north (Tuaregs, Fulas, and Arab Berbers) and sedentary African farmers in the south have been the source of conflict and repeated conflict insurgencies that have provoked regional involvement.

In many ways, the ongoing conflict in Mali is closely linked to climate change; the variability of rainfall and the increase in temperatures has progressively hindered social relations and exacerbated ethnic conflicts. Due to Mali’s diverse population of herders and sedentary farmers, changes in climate such as water-related natural disasters can increase environmental pressures on shared water supplies, engendering competition between contending water users. For example, the pastoralist Tuaregs’ access to water in the north has been severely affected by climate change and postcolonial government measures, directly contributing to years of conflict between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers provoking insurgencies and attracting regional involvement.

Mali’s Climate Profile.

Africa was recently declared one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change, a “situation aggravated by the interaction of multiple stresses”, in part due to the population’s low capacity of adaptation. In the last decade, Mali has suffered immensely from environmental degradation. The country’s high reliance on resource-based livelihoods and their limited availability have negatively affected the capacity of the Malian government and society to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Mali’s specific climate has significant variability; the north is mostly covered by the arid Sahara Desert, the south is particularly humid, and the Niger delta in the centre experiences seasonal flooding. The country has experienced repeated drought and floods, bushfires and strong wind that have immensely affected livelihoods, especially in the northern region (Nagarajan, 2020). Mali depends on exploiting its natural resources for economic development, and it supports nearly 80% of the population. Despite the Sahel being one of the continent’s most fruitful crop zones, the extreme changes in weather (rainfall and temperature) has severely hindered its agricultural production, leading to worsened food insecurities and exacerbated ethnic divides. In the last 50 years, rainfall has diminished by 30%, and the mean annual temperature has increased by almost 1°C, deforestation has accelerated, resource availability and livelihood security have declined, and there is increasing pressure on land (Mitra, 2017).

The Malian agricultural sector is severely affected by conflicts over resource distribution, climate change mitigation and other challenges such as low productivity, crop losses and under-developed infrastructure and markets. The clashes between pastoralists/herders and farmers over resource use have only been intensified by decades of ‘anti-nomadic’ agricultural policies that have reduced nomads’ access to land and water. A combination of the socialist government’s political and land tenure reforms and development policies have only exacerbated the country’s ethnic divides. Agricultural production throughout Mali is mainly rain-fed, making it highly sensitive to droughts and floods caused by climate change. A recent study by the Planetary Security Initiative found that even when considering the unreliability of climate forecasting models, it is certain that climate change significantly impacts the agricultural sector through changes in the availability of water, crop yields, animal health, pests and diseases.

Consequently, inconsistencies in crop yields will inevitably affect production revenues and the country’s food security. Analysis conducted by the PSI on climate change and resource stress in Mali found that in 2017, more than 3.8 people were affected by food insecurity over the summer, an increase of nearly 1 million people at the same time the year before. This sharp increase was linked to floods that severely affected crops in the Inner Niger Delta region, and although they cannot be attributed directly to climate change, these floods serve as a prime example of the drastic effects of climate change on people’s livelihoods.

How does climate change drive conflict in Mali?

Today, despite reconciliation agreements between the government and armed forces, the unravelling of Mali is ongoing. The attacks on Malian security forces and French counterterrorism initiatives are frequent, making central and northern Mali hubs of instability governed by extremist groups. The nefarious effects of ongoing instability have been economic disruption, the destruction of infrastructure, and interference in development efforts. The Malian government’s ability to provide basic services is severely hindered in most northern and central Mali, where conflict has provoked high levels of displacement, and the closure of schools and health centres. Furthermore, ethnic conflict has been fueled by deteriorating environmental conditions that have disrupted the Tuareg’s livelihoods and favoured sedentary agriculture (Michel, 2020).

The variability of the climate has adversely affected civilians’ ability to plan farming, pastoralist and fishing activities and compromised food security. The different adaptation strategies adopted by farmers and herders to overcome environmental degradation have modified their traditional routines within the country, fueling more inter-group conflicts throughout Mali (Kalkavan, 2019). Additionally, due to the uneven effects of climate change, the structural inequalities that have existed since colonial times between farmers and herders have only worsened. Minority herder groups (Tuaregs, Arab Berbers and Fulas) have been more vulnerable to climate variability than other agricultural ethnic populations.

These minority groups are not only vulnerable to extreme weather, but their security is also severely affected by violent conflict. The ongoing conflict has made them less able to invest in developing their climate resilience and made their seasonal migrations incredibly perilous. The combined effects of climate change with other factors such as weak governance, livelihood insecurity and marginalization can create a propitious setting for armed groups to recruit members and gain support. For example, the Macina Liberation Front has consistently exploited land rights issues of Fulani herders in order to boost local support and recruit young Fulani pastoralists. Similarly, other rebel groups in the north and central Mali have acted as local law enforcement due to government absence, mediating resource disputes and supporting farmers and herders. Inequalities among the Malian population have driven conflict, but they also greatly determine how climate change affects some communities more than others.

Building climate resilience and developing adaptability.

Although there is much uncertainty regarding climate projections in Mali, with predicted patterns of precipitation varying from one study to the next, it is agreed that climate change will have an immediate effect on interannual variability, with a rainy season becoming increasingly unpredictable. In order to resolve conflicts over natural resources and deteriorating climate conditions that have worsened ethnic conflicts, it is essential to consider two factors.

Firstly, the Malian government and international donors and organizations must recognize how conflicts over natural resources have ripple effects on general conflict dynamics and implement transversal/cross-sectoral policies. The only way to enable more integrated responses to climate change is to fully grasp that the impact of one conflict inevitably has spillover effects on other conflicts.

Secondly, although many organizations have successively alleviated the effects of food insecurity in some parts of Mali by investing in technical solutions to boost agricultural production, these solutions would likely be more effective if they were more sensitive to conflict. As such, these investments would not exacerbate existing grievances but instead focus on developing specific agronomic measures like rain-fed agriculture, livestock cultivation and aquaculture in a way that does not privilege certain ethnic groups over others or further disrupt local economies.

With the points mentioned above, the Malian government needs to develop its climate resilience and adaptability. The UNFCCC defines adaptation as the “adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts.” Consequently, the adaptive capacity of a state is measured by the structures and practices put in place to mitigate the damages caused by climate change.

Countries draft adaption solutions for future and current impacts of climate change.

Adaptation strategies and policies can be implemented on multiple scales from countries to businesses and include a wide range of practices. For example, it could be highly beneficial for Mali to invest in the instalment of flood defences to protect its crops and to plant drought/flood-resistant crops or crops with shorter growing seasons. In addition, since the impacts of climate change can not specifically be foreseen, key Malian institutions like government organizations and NGOs need to integrate climate change into their priorities. It could also be beneficial to integrate some adaptive practices into the education system; in addition to learning reading and writing skills, Malian children would learn agricultural skills and understand climate risks, eventually permitting them to adapt traditional practices and reduce climate vulnerability.


Since 2020, Mali has progressively tipped into an economic recession aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the socio-political crisis derived from the 2020 and 2021 coups. In addition, the agricultural sector has particularly ill-performed, with cotton production dropping drastically and its global demand declining. BBC journalist Lyse Doucet explains that she was startled to see “how the consequences of climate change are woven through the fabric of lives in what has always been a harsh existence on the edge of the encroaching Sahara desert.” She also urges the international community to shift some of their attention away from ‘higher-visibility conflicts’ and focus on the worsening fragility of Mali and other countries of the Sahel region. In the last decades, Mali has experienced consequential variability and rainfall paired with an increase in average annual temperatures, and with 80% of its population’s livelihood dependent on rain-fed agriculture, the country’s stability is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Therefore, it is essential to fully grasp how climate change and conflict dynamics are interlinked by conducting an integrated Malian security assessment.

Additionally, by mitigating other inequalities, such as gender inequalities, populations vulnerable to climate change could, in turn, mitigate conflict risks. Enhancing meteorological capacities, developing drought or flood-resistant crops, and educating the youth about climate risks, are all possible ways of strengthening Mali’s climate adaptability. Building climate security resilience throughout Mali is an indispensable aspect of conflict resolution that Mali needs to ensure long-term stability.


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