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Jan Egeland's Sahel climate change diary - Day 2

A group of Tuareg men in traditional dress silhouetted on the crest of a sand dune at an oasis, west of Timbuktu, Mali. February 2008. Many Tuareg nomads still lead salt caravans across the desert to the market in Timbuktu. Tuaregs are spread across five
A group of Tuareg men in traditional dress silhouetted on the crest of a sand dune at an oasis, west of Timbuktu, Mali (Tugela Ridley/IRIN)

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on conflict, Jan Egeland, is travelling in the Sahel this week to draw attention to a region the UN says is experiencing the worst effects of climate change in the world. He is sharing his thoughts and experiences every day with IRIN. This is the second instalment, this time from the Mali capital, Bamako.

“Too many Malians are resorting to guns to settle their grievances with each other as runaway population growth, shrinking water resources and deteriorating pastoral and agricultural land are turning neighbours into enemies all over this vast and ancient country.

“According to my UN colleagues here in the capital Bamako, there are hundreds of small and quite localised conflicts happening all over Mali.

“And the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) small arms unit told me that guns are now flowing here from several other countries in the region that have recently ended their own wars. ECOWAS also said that the number of local gun makers has doubled over the past four or five years in Mali.

More on Jan Egeland's tour
Day 1 - Ougadougou, Burkina Faso
 Backgrounder on the Sahel, West Africa’s poorest region
 Region is “ground zero” for climate change – Egeland
 More Sahel reports

“That is actually quite an emotional revelation for me. The last time I worked in Mali, 10 years ago, it was on behalf of the Norwegian government and NGOs, helping negotiate a small arms moratorium. Back then, a rebellion by ethnic Touaregs in the north had just ended and Mali was still flooded with small arms left over from other African wars and the Cold War.

“Today, the institutions that we set up to implement the moratorium and to get weapons out of circulation, like the National Commission on Small Arms, are still in place but are struggling with not nearly enough funding or support. Those institutions and the moratorium are as much needed today as a decade ago.

“But taking the weapons out of people’s hands is just one part of what it is going to take to stop these currently small and isolated clashes.

Climate change provoking clashes

“Echoing what I heard yesterday in Burkina Faso - Mali’s eastern neighbour and where I started this week-long trip in the Sahel - I today heard from President Amadou Toumani Toure, the prime minister and other senior officials about how dwindling, unpredictable rainfall, water shortages and the steady creep of the Sahara desert into more and more of Mali’s arable land and the Niger River are forcing agricultural and pastoral communities into each others’ territories and provoking frequent clashes.

Photo: IRIN
A nomad Tamashek hut in the centre of Goa, Mali. Many people have abandoned their traditional nomadic way of life after successive droughts killed off animal herds

“Pastoralists in the north of Mali, where I am travelling tomorrow, are apparently also feeling very marginalised from the development process that is happening in the south of the country, which is another source of tension. Some ethnic Touaregs in that area have launched a rebellion, demanding political and economic equality for the north.

“As well, we talked about how Malians are suffering as rice prices rise, and the production of cotton, which is the main cash crop grown here, is being decimated by unpredictable rains.

Colombian drug smugglers

“Colombian drug smugglers with unlimited money to bribe seem to buy and fight for control of trans-Saharan routes to ship their drugs to Europe and the Gulf. They are undermining the government and make large parts of the country unsafe. I know from my experience working in Colombia how disruptive these groups are, and how hard it is to dislodge them once they get established.

“All that I saw and heard in Mali confirmed the impression I already had that the jury is out on whether we will see increased cooperation or conflict in the Sahel. We can help invest in cooperation.

“There are people here who are advocating for a military solution to the rebellions, armed attacks and smugglers. The army is a solution against smuggling and drug trafficking certainly, but legitimate social, political and cultural grievances cannot be met that way. They require investment, development and dialogue.

Donor and UN support

“I am therefore going to encourage donors – which here in Bamako have already supported many good programmes - to put much more money into environmental programmes and to projects to help assist and empower pastoralists especially. They should help the small arms decommissioning programmes too.

Photo: Tugela Riddley/IRIN
A girl buying water from a private well in Timbuktu, Mali. Each small bucket of clean drinking water costs the equivalent of 10 US cents but is a daily necessity in this hot and dry city on the southern edge of the Sahara

“We also agreed that the UN could and should do more to help with reconciliation at the local level, local development and empowerment for farmers and agricultural communities in the north and pastoralists.

“The situation is very tense already. But a bigger conflict can be prevented with the right investments and with cooperation. The president of Mali has taken a very admirable stand in favour of dialogue with all marginalised communities. With Mali’s neighbours he is organising a regional conference on peace and security which it now looks like is going to go ahead in June or July.

“Now to Timbuktu, the age-old city where I will be visiting Lake Faguibine and seeing for myself the impact of climate change and, hopefully, some creative solutions for coping with it."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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