Climate Change and Conflict in West African Cities: Early Warning Signs in Lagos and Accra
Despite the threat posed by flooding and sea-level rise, relatively little attention has been paid to the potential for environmentally induced instability in coastal West African cities. However, current trends, including rapid population growth, land use patterns, and increasing climate impacts, suggest the costs of inaction in these urban areas are rising.Early signs of social discontent linked to climate change are visible
As part of a research project for USAID, the Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability recently conducted a study in Nigeria and Ghana to examine the vulnerability of Lagos and Accra to climate-related conflict.
In the short term, it is unlikely that climate stresses will lead to significant conflict in either city, but the outlook is less clear further out. Early signs of social discontent linked to climate change are visible, although interwoven with economic, social, and political grievances. Whether these complaints evolve over time into scenarios more ripe for conflict or find satisfactory resolution will hinge on the effectiveness of government actions to reduce vulnerability and alleviate the sense of injustice already felt by climate-affected communities.
Lagos: A Victim of Its Own Success?
With a fast-growing population of more than 21 million people, the hot and rainy coastal megacity of Lagos is the financial and commercial engine of Nigeria. The national government faces serious threats to stability from political struggles between a predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south, conflict over oil revenues in the Niger Delta, and the rise of the violent Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram. Lagos, by contrast, is increasingly an economic success story. Despite millions of poor inhabitants, the per capita GDP of Lagos State is 33 times that of the 10 poorest northern states.
Fifteen years ago, Lagos was known as something of a basket case, with incredible crowding and legendary traffic jams. Since then key aspects of public services have improved significantly, including a comprehensive program to deal with solid waste management and clear the streets of refuse by the Lagos Waste Management Authority. But new challenges have emerged, in part thanks to these improvements.
As a consequence of its economic opportunities and improving conditions, Lagos has attracted millions of migrants, often from northern states. Many have settled illegally in massive slums lacking basic sanitation in some of the lowest lying areas of the city (average elevation is less than 1.5 meters). Drainage remains a huge challenge, and recent floods and storm surges have produced dozens of fatalities and exposed many to water-borne diseases.
Efforts by the Lagos State government to demolish slum settlements have been met with resistance. Given the high flood risks, residents in poor neighborhoods have been warned to be prepared to evacuate at the height of the rainy season, but few have viable alternatives and local officials acknowledge that recently designated emergency disaster areas have extremely limited capacity to house and feed displaced persons.
When it comes to climate change projections for coastal Nigeria, there is consensus on the likelihood of rising temperatures but somewhat mixed results for rainfall models, with some indicating the likelihood of more intense and erratic rainfall. Sea-level rise is expected to continue at about 3.1mm a year.
Through the massive public-private Eko Atlantic project, the city has been reclaiming land from the sea at a rate of 400,000 tons of sand a day and building a 12-meter high sea wall. But the new development is mostly composed of ultramodern districts for businesses, entertainment, and luxury residences. Civil society activists ask why the poor majority face relocation or evacuation while the better off are protected by a huge sea wall.The potential exists for even higher levels of resentment or rejection of migrants to the city
Meanwhile, after the March 2013 arrest of 14 suspects with explosives and self-proclaimed ties to Boko Haram, migrants from the drought-stricken north and northeast are sometimes viewed with suspicion. Indeed, the pressures of in-migration are felt keenly by the Lagos State government.
In August 2013, the government escorted around 70 “destitute” Igbos from Anambra State across the state border and left them along the Niger River, setting off a firestorm of complaints from commentators appalled at the idea that Nigerian citizens could be “deported” from one state to another. Despite a subsequent apology, Governor Babatunde Fashola has spoken out strongly about the responsibility of other Nigerian states to provide for their citizens, and the potential exists for even higher levels of resentment or rejection of migrants to the city, whether they are driven by climate stresses or by other factors.
Lagos’ nexus of population growth without land-use enforcement and basic public services, intensifying climate impacts, and divisive politics has the potential to undermine its aspirations to be a model African megacity, we concluded – and could, over time, lead to conflict.
A Gap in Expectations for Accra
Ghana has its own economic, social, and political cleavages, but it is a far more stable democracy than Nigeria. After high levels of violence during ethnic disputes in the north in the 1980s and 1990s, Ghanaians are conflict averse and proud of their democratic culture.Northern Ghana is likely to be a hotter and possibly drier
Far smaller than Lagos but still a large metropolis of around 3 million, Accra has a population that is growing more rapidly than the nation as a whole. Climate models indicate that residents almost certainly face a hotter future with the possibility of greater rainfall variability and intensity, while their northern compatriots are likely to encounter a hotter and possibly drier climate that reduces agricultural yields and increases incentives to move to the city.
Although 85 percent of Accra’s current residents were either born there or in adjacent regions, many migrants came in the earlier era of political conflict. Some settled illegally on wetlands in what has become a slum of around 80,000 people known as Old Fadama. Much of the neighborhood quickly floods during rainfall thanks to refuse-choked drainage channels. As in Lagos, plans to demolish Old Fadama and relocate residents provoked protests that forced the government to reconsider.
Flooding is a major problem across the city. In October 2011, Accra Airport registered a massive 156mm (6.1 inches) of rain, roughly equivalent to the entire rainfall of the rainiest month of the year, over a 24-hour period. Nine people died in the storm. In response to this event and what officials perceived to be a worsening flood situation, the $596-million, multiyear Accra Sanitary Sewer and Storm Water Drainage Alleviation Project was initiated in 2013. The project includes de-silting, dredging, and removing solid waste from the city’s channels and drains.
According to Graham Sarbah, the city’s drains maintenance unit director, the municipal government now hopes to “contain” the problems of Old Fadama and believes blocked drains farther upstream are the greater problem. Plans to combat sea-level rise are also being made, but there is a lack of urgency compared to flooding and population displacement.
Other communities vulnerable to climate change include the Ga people, the first inhabitants of what became Accra, who now live at the edge of the city’s eroding coastline in a vulnerable fishing community known as Jamestown. The Dansoman area at the western edge of the city is also highly vulnerable to coastal erosion and sea-level rise.
Interviews with representatives of communities in vulnerable areas revealed high levels of skepticism about the municipal government’s capacity to implement its drainage plans, and some in the Ga community are resentful of what they perceive to be the weak manner in which the government has dealt with Old Fadama. There is a growing gap between citizen expectations and government performance, and climate change threatens to widen the breach.
Relocation, Renovation, or Suffering
At a minimum, this research suggests that, in conjunction with increasing climate stresses, the continued expansion of densely populated settlements in coastal West Africa’s poor, low-lying, urban areas will result in an escalation of costs associated with disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.With leadership and political will, progress is possible
Whether or not to relocate or compensate the most vulnerable residents, and how to do so, are extremely difficult questions that few governments have found answers for. It’s also an issue that, combined with other grievances related to poverty, migration, and failed governance, has very high conflict potential.
Providing adequate infrastructure and sanitation to avoid relocation and make these areas more habitable and less vulnerable to flooding and storm surges is an equally daunting undertaking. The alternative is to do nothing, with the very likely consequence of costly humanitarian disasters, social unrest, and rising death tolls as demographic and climate trends converge.
The example of Lagos’ recent achievements in solid waste management shows that, with leadership and political will, progress in environmental remediation and enhanced climate resilience is possible, even in what is arguably Africa’s most challenging urban setting. Improved infrastructure and technical fixes are just one part of the solution to mitigating the potential for conflict, however; the other is developing government policies and actions that impart a sense of justice to those affected and allow them a voice in decisions about their own fate.
Jeffrey Stark is the director of research and Katsuaki Terasawa is a senior fellow for the Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability. ‘Climate Change and Conflict in West African Cities: A Policy Brief on Findings from Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana’ was prepared by FESS for Tetra Tech ARD under USAID’s African and Latin American Resilience to Climate Change Project.
Sources: ARCC, AllAfrica, Climate Information Platform, International Food Policy Research Institute, National Bureau of Statistics (Nigeria), The New York Times, UN Development Program.
Photo Credit: Garbage blocking a waterway in the slum of Old Fadama, Accra, used with permission courtesy of Katsuaki Terasawa; Accra coastline from space, courtesy of NASA.