Early Warning & Risk Analysis
Land & Food
Sub-Saharan Africa
Milen Yishak, Independent Consultant on Environmental Diplomacy
Ethiopia, farming, agriculture, livestock, cattle herd, ploughing, rural
Livestock farmer in Ethiopia | © D Mz/Pixabay

Until recently, impressive economic growth, stable leadership and its attractiveness as a foreign investment hub put Ethiopia in a positive spotlight. However, the country still ranks low in human development and is highly dependent on rainfed agriculture, making it particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Combined with existing tensions and inequalities, climate vulnerability can exacerbate security risks. To mitigate these linkages, Ethiopia’s leadership should support implementation of conflict-sensitive climate change adaptation policies and include climate security in its conflict mitigation strategy.  

As of September 2019, recurring droughts and flooding, combined with inter-ethnic violence and disease outbreaks had left over eight million people in need of emergency assistance for food, shelter and medicines. The destructive effects of climate variability and extremes on the well-being and livelihoods of people in Ethiopia could contribute to an increasing trend in communal violence and ethnic tensions. This may already be happening. If institutional authorities do not comprehensively mitigate and prepare for the conjunction of climate-related impacts and security threats, these could potentially extend to the wider Horn of Africa region.

A new Climate Security Expert Network analysis highlights three key mechanisms that link climate variability, change and fragile security, and discusses how they can exacerbate the current tensions and conflict in Ethiopia, as well as regionally.

Climate change and the agricultural sector

Since the 1990s, Ethiopia has successfully diversified its economy from predominantly agricultural to include industry, manufacturing and services. However, agriculture, which employs  66% of the labour force and is almost exclusively rain-fed, remains the major source of employment and livelihood for households in the rural areas of the country. In light of increasingly erratic rainfall patterns, this dependency poses a serious challenge to the country’s economic and social prospects. Future climate projections foresee increases in mean annual temperatures, higher precipitation variability, and more frequent and intense occurrence of extreme weather events.

Rainfall has been declining in the past decade, and the trend holds: according to FEWS the Horn of Africa’s long rain season has performed well below average, following the below-average performance of the 2018-19 short rains season. It is reported that 8.3 million Ethiopians are food insecure, and these numbers are exacerbated by mass internal displacement from inter-communal violence. Thus, climate vulnerability and instability are already converging.

Current state of affairs and deadly convergence channels

Security is already a major challenge for the Ethiopian leadership, which must deal with a cocktail of ethnic tensions and communal clashes, caused by the resurfacing of deeply-rooted and historical divisions. In 2018, ethnic violence internally displaced 1.4 million Ethiopians – the highest in the world for that year. The ICG notes that insecurity has spread across the country and communal violence is disturbing the multi-ethnic fabric of Ethiopian society.

If institutions lack the capacity to intervene, the impacts of climate vulnerability and change can contribute to an overall state of fragility and intensify conflict through various channels. Food scarcity and livelihood insecurity can lead to migration, discontent and upheaval, such as the chain of intense protests demanding political and economic change in 2018 that ultimately led Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign.

Climate-induced land and pasture degradation can also force pastoral communities to migrate to cropping areas and vice-versa, which can fuel conflicts between farmers and pastoral communities. At the same time, widespread unemployment can benefit ethnic militias and other non-state armed groups by creating economic problems that facilitate recruitment, as well as an atmosphere of instability that provides a safe haven for their operations. The consequences can spread regionally across the Horn of Africa. 

Mitigating climate impacts for achieving peace and stability

Climate change is a serious threat to Ethiopia’s hard earned economic and social achievements. Accordingly, to date, the Ethiopian leadership has paid attention to climate resilience from an economic and development perspective, without much attention to the links between climate fragility and security. Scaling up climate change adaptation is key to mitigate those risks, however, adaptation policies must be conflict-sensitive, and conflict management should be integrated into disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation policies and programmes.

Local and regional institutions have a key role to play in implementing these strategies; therefore they need to be given sufficient resources to enhance their implementation and response capacities. Finally, climate security should be integrated into national conflict mitigation strategies and promoted at the regional level to prevent spillovers across borders.


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