The International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) new report, Watchlist Insight: Climate and Humanitarian Crisis in the Central Sahel, highlights the ways that long-term economic underdevelopment and political marginalization are making communities in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger more vulnerable to the effects of both the climate crisis and protracted armed conflict.  

The IRC’s new analysis highlights that it is neither a coincidence nor inevitable that communities in parts of the Central Sahel are on the frontlines of the climate crisis and armed conflict. Based on insights from the IRC’s experience operating in the Central Sahel, the report is also a reminder that in order to truly understand the impacts of climate change, it is critical to understand how changes to temperature, rainfall, and the frequency of natural disasters interact with the humanitarian dynamics of a country.  

The Central Sahel has experienced a 172% increase in humanitarian need since 2016: more than 16 million people require assistance and protection. Food insecurity affects more than 5 million people, with a growing number of malnourished children. The number of internally displaced persons has increased by over 2400% since 2014.  

These record levels of humanitarian need are being driven by a vicious cycle produced by the legacy of political and economic neglect. This has exacerbated instability and community dependence on climate-affected livelihoods, which in turn exposed these regions to a disproportionate impact of the climate crisis and armed conflict. Humanitarian crises tend to be concentrated in the periphery of these countries, where weakened state capacity and regional security challenges have disrupted economic policies, long-term investments in development, and essential climate adaptation efforts. 

Moreover, livelihoods vulnerable to climate change, such as agriculture and livestock, are more prevalent away from capitals – and more susceptible to shock. As droughts and floods become more frequent and intense, people’s decreased abilities to cope with the loss of income, scarcity of food and water, and displacement contribute further to instability. In this setting, girls and women bear the brunt of impacts through increased vulnerability to poverty, violence, food insecurity, and limited access to healthcare and education. 

The IRC is calling for solutions that break the cycle of poverty, address the origins and nature of the compound crisis through meeting immediate humanitarian needs, and advocating for funding that supports climate adaptation, tailored to the region’s specific challenges. 

Modou Diaw, the IRC’s Regional Vice President for West Africa: 

“The humanitarian impacts we are seeing in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are not a coincidence, but a result of historical and current political decisions that have left communities unprepared to face the impacts of climate change. This year’s Watchlist highlighted spiraling humanitarian need around the world as the guardrails that protect people from humanitarian catastrophe are weakened in fragile and conflict states. This dynamic can be seen especially clearly in the vicious cycle of lasting political and economic neglect, plunging communities into ever deeper humanitarian need in the Central Sahel. The region accounts for less than 1% of the global population but 5% of global humanitarian needs. 

“This compound crisis requires attention both to immediate needs and efforts to break the cycle. It is crucial to invest in humanitarian access, geared especially to the specific needs of women and girls. Global climate finance with a focus on matching adaptation to mitigation efforts must be delivered through a range of partners- such as the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations - to account for low state capacity.  

“Understanding the climate risk in fragile and conflict-affected states is only part of the picture. Uncovering the vicious cycles at the heart of great and growing humanitarian need, particularly in the midst of the climate crisis, is essential to saving lives today and building resilience for the future.”  

The International Rescue Committee helps people affected by humanitarian crises - including the climate crisis - to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. In West Africa, it has been working since 1991, to empower people in crisis to survive and rebuild their lives. The IRC’s WA region comprises eight Country Programs in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.