It has taken around fifty years for the Aral Sea to parch. If you look at satellite images of the Kazakh-Uzbek border today, it is as though a half-bruised eyelid has drowsed shut across tens of thousands of kilometres of water. Lake Chad – on the margins of Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon – is next.
Since the 1960s, it has shrivelled by 90 per cent. Roughly half of that reduction in size is attributed to climate change, but the truth is that scientists and analysts find themselves all at subjunctives with such figures. This isn’t just an ecological calamity. It’s also symptomatic of what will be one of the most persistent human rights challenges of this century. The cradle of mankind is starting to look more like a cemetery.
Take Niger, a country that finds itself at the very top or the very bottom of almost every index you can dig up: lowest in the UN Human Development Index, the highest number of children born per woman (7.6) in the world, and third in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index for 2016. This is where the Sahara’s southward creep is being felt most palpably.
Farmers close to Lake Chad in the southeast of the country and the River Niger in the southwest grow millet and sorghum, but the desert is compressing – inchmeal – the country’s 15 per cent of arable land. That, together with a 16 million-strong population that could reach 50 million by 2050, is a toxic combination. Lake Chad’s waters recede in tandem with the hopes and dreams of Niger’s children.
The Sahel – Arabic for ‘shore’ – is in stoic retreat. And the Sahara empties stomachs as surely as it empties landscapes. Scientists aren’t certain whether countries like Niger will get wetter or drier as the decades pass. But they’re sure their weathers will get more extreme, perhaps wetter and drier: 29 per cent more rainfall is expected to fall between September and November by 2020-39 as compared to 1980-99 averages, while temperature rises of up to 2.9˚C by 2025 in the regular rainy season of August would surprise few.
The prospect of more droughts and more floods won’t fill many farmers with confidence. Beside Lake Chad, a senior UN Refugee Agency official notes that the Nigerien lands “are now almost completely free of civilians; there’s hardly anyone left there at all”. Farmers adapt by becoming nomadic, or relocating to urban areas.
The regions they vacate become vulnerable to nefarious influences: incursions by Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group now calling itself Daesh’s ‘West African province’, led Chad – Niger’s neighbour in poverty and geography – to declare a state of emergency in the Lake Chad area this November. On Saturday, three suicide bombers killed around 30 people and injured 80 at a market near the lake. It is unknown whether Boko Haram gave them their orders. When nature shudders and resources are threatened, human rights are pushed to the precipice.
Groups like Boko Haram offer an eerie vision of the future. Recall the droughts between 2007 and 2010 which affected, according to UN estimates, at least 1.3 million Syrians. We will never know the extent to which the need to import wheat in 2008 for the first time in Syria’s history, or the movement of over 300,000 helpless farmers away from the northeast of the country in 2009, anticipated the horrors that have swept Kobanî, Homs and Palmyra since. What we do know is that we are now living through one of the greatest migration crises the modern world has ever experienced – not climate-induced, but perhaps climate-enabled.
It may well be that many more half-decomposed and jackal-bitten bodies, like those of the 92 Nigeriens who died, dehydrated, as they crossed the Sahara to reach Algeria in 2013, lie buried – or, in the nearest of futures, will lie buried – in those lone and lifeless sands. Even if they had arrived, no legal argument could have set them on their way to a new life. This year alone, Niger’s northern neighbour turned back almost 4,000 migrants, fleeing hunger and poverty and terror.
The advance of the world’s largest desert, then, isn’t just a story of sand dunes and camel trails. It’s a story of socioeconomic deprivation, population growth, resource scarcity, terrorism, potential state failure. And it’s a story that will be told at the gates of countries like the UK, in the form of refugees, if we continue to neglect it. This is the second inconvenient truth of climate change.
Historians looking back on 2015 will have Paris at the forefront of their minds for two events: the brutal mid-November Daesh terrorist attacks, and COP21 in early December. The most important environmental conference since Kyoto might also end up being one of the most important human rights gatherings of the past half-century. What governments decide – or don’t decide – in Paris will signal whether the world intends to take a proactive or a reactive approach to climate change and its human rights costs.
The UN, according to its High Commissioner as of October 2014, didn’t have enough spare change for “one single staff member focusing full-time on an issue as stark and vital to human rights as climate change”. If the developed world can’t be persuaded to fund billions and billions of dollars worth of projects within (at the most generous) the next five to ten years, it is likely that it never will be. Whatever rights abuses ensue – socioeconomic or political – will doubtless return, as Macbeth once warned, to plague the inventor. We may deal in borders, but nature will not.
Governments cannot pretend that they never knew this was coming, or that it wasn’t worth doing anything about. Now, we have an opportunity; soon, we will have a burden. The difference between those two terms – politically, economically and morally – is worth a great deal.
Also published on my blog at The Huffington Post.