Environmental Security in Sub Saharan Africa: Vulnerability and Recommendations


Faith Okinyi, Ivy Chebet,
Anastacia Martha Musuvii & Daisy Masinde

The Sub- Saharan region is no exception in experiencing the effects of climate change as it continues to experience more frequent and intense climate extremes. Temperature increases in the region are projected to be higher than the global mean temperature increases which have resulted in frequent heatwaves, prolonged droughts and crop failure in the region. It is a pity that developing countries are the ones that are greatly affected by the adverse effects of climate change which is greatly attributed to the pollution caused by their heavily industrialized counterparts, the developed nations. Studies have shown that inhabitants of developing countries have ten times more chances of being affected by climate change induced disasters than those in developed countries. This is attributed to the myriad socio- economic and environmental factors which limit their resilience and ability to combat climate crisis as critical views on the same suggest that it would take over 100 years for developing countries to attain developed countries’ resilience in tackling the effects of climate change.

Several joint efforts have been made by states to address the issues surrounding environmental security and climate change including signing and ratification of international agreements concerning management of the environment. Some of the agreements the Sub- Saharan African countries are part of include: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) on regulation of emission of greenhouse gases to a level that can offset the effects of global warming and climate change through international cooperation, Montreal Protocol (1987) which came into force in 1989, aimed at reduction in production and consumption of Ozone Depleting Substances and recognizes states’ obligations in ODS emission reduction through technical and financial capabilities. Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) provides a framework for biodiversity conservation and preservation, sustainable and equitable use of biological resources. UN Convention on Desertification (1994) which seeks a bottom- up approach in building international cooperation among states and non- state actors in addressing regional policies and combating desertification in drought- prone areas and the Paris Agreement (2016) which countries such as Angola, Eritrea and South Sudan are yet to join. The agreement aims at strengthening global response to the threats of climate change and accelerates actions and investments needed for a low carbon future that is sustainable through efforts such as maintaining global temperatures at below 2 degrees Celsius above pre- industrial levels and limiting a further increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In as much as many states are signatories and have ratified the agreements on climate change, little has been done to salvage the situation due to lack of commitment and cooperation in efforts to mitigate its effects. Money invested in the mitigation course does not go to the developing countries who are most at risk as there is a disconnect between where the climate risk is greatest and where the adaptation funding goes.

Conceptual Framework

Understanding environmental security and its discourse is dependent on the securitization theory whose tannates depict that politically aligned issues are regarded as security matters which require urgent response especially when they have been labelled as a threat to survival by an actor who has the capacity to drive issues beyond the political realm. The relevance of environmental problems in politics begun in the 1970s as there was need to reflect on their security implications, though the emergence of global environmental problems such as global warming in the early 1980s was the inception of the debate on environmental security with events such as the publication of Our Common Future in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development led to the use of the term ‘Environmental Security’ in international debates concerning environment issues.

The concept of securitizing environment is changing over time so are the areas of focus. Beck explains the transformation of security logic based on two phases which are late modernity which he calls the “risk society” and the industrial society. He states that the main objectives of the industrialized society focused on wealth production which involved creating risks which were regarded as suitable due to created limitations such as compensation and insurance mechanisms. On the other hand, the risk society has a reversed relationship as the main focus is on minimising risks rather than wealth maximization. This is attributed to the fact that there are a number of complex and dangerous technology related risks such as nuclear, genetic as well as chemical technologies whose effects are evident beyond their borders of origin due to their unbound nature and have the potential to cause mass destruction which could either take a prolonged time to detect or be irreversible.

At the initial stages the concept of securitizing environmental issues was widely accepted as its proponents argued that it was meant to startle analysts whose focus was only on traditional security and inform them on other issues which were also of great importance and increase the relevance of environment- related problems in the political arena. Other scholars such as Buzan argue that all human enterprises are dependent on the environment, hence there is need to maintain it. The proponents of environmental securitization also assert that the traditional values which were associated with the nation- state such as identity, territory as well as sovereignty are of less importance and uphold values linked to environmental change, for instance, governance, globalization and ecology. At the same time, others argued that environmental security is entirely about cohesion and an evaluation basis depicts that it is the preferable way to account for the emerging classifications depending on the level of vulnerability or its potential to result to conflict.

On the other hand, environmental security antagonists such as Deudney eschew the use of the term “security” in environmental issues as it elicits practices which may be confrontational such as the use of military by states which should be excluded from environmental issues, he further states that institutions and practices associated with national security are inadequate in tackling environmental related challenges and have a possibility of introducing a win- lose ground to the environmental contention, undermining cooperative efforts which plays a vital role in handling environmental issues. This can be seen in the North- South politics as the southern countries feel that the concept is only meant to secure the interests of the Northern countries at their own expense by protecting their consumption patterns as well as access to resources. This resulted to discussions on security implications of climate change by the UN Security Council in 2007 though there was a divergence on whether to consider climate change and environmental degradation as security threats.
The diverging views between proponents and opponents of environment securitization deviates from the main issue of concern which is whether practices linked to provision of security have been affected by environmental security debates. This is because its proponents insist that securitizing environmental issues covers a broad range of issues of concern which require legitimization and eventually institutionalization whereas its opponents strongly suggest that the security logic is fixed.

Environmental Insecurity in
Sub-Saharan Africa

Logard & Westing speaking on the concept of environmental security believe that linking the two terms to each other creates political awareness on the situation of the environment in relation to security. This brings about a sense of urgency to resolve the environmental problems as they pose dire threats to national core values. The problems in the environment are very intertwined culminating to the overall menace that is environmental insecurity. Climate change, food security and urbanization in Sub Saharan Africa are phenomena that have evolved separately, yet have interlinking repercussions. They are the main causes of environmental insecurity in Sub Saharan Africa. It is this nexus that needs to be solved in order to have an environmentally secure sub Saharan Africa.

Climate Change

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges to environmental security. Climate change is a phenomenon affecting the world at large and Sub Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to it. The occurrence of climate change has a vast impact on food security and people’s livelihoods. The effects of climate change are very lethal as they occur over long periods of time in climate change norms and over short periods of time in relation to frequency and severity of extreme weather events. The Sub Saharan Africa region is more susceptible due to various biophysical, socioeconomic and political issues which constrain its ability to adapt. Climate Change might seem like a marginal issue compared to other pressing issues in the national and regional security spectrum but its effects are very devastating. It may occur due to pollution of the environment, deforestation, which destabilizes the human security of people.
Climate change has had various impacts such as on public health with diseases stemming from the extreme weather events. These include waterborne diseases and malnutrition. Climate change has also led to violent intra state conflicts in various countries in Sub Saharan Africa. These conflicts tend to destabilize the country and undermine safety and security. Majority of research conducted on the impact of climate change suggests that it increasingly becoming an emerging challenge to global environmental security at large.
Food Security

According to Clover, the right to food is one of the fundamental rights in international humanitarian law doctrines, but it is one of the most violated human rights. Many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa experience food insecurity due to various underlying factors that are interconnected. Food insecurity results from various interactions between multiple factions in the socioeconomic and environmental scope. Factors such as climate change cause droughts, famine and floods which subsequently lead to food insecurity. This affects the human security. World targets set to reduce hunger have failed as people worldwide remain malnourished. Of the 840 million people who are malnourished, the highest percentage resides in Africa. This is despite there being a huge increase in food production. The food security problem in Africa is now at crisis level with approximately 38 million people still facing urgent and imminent threats to peace, security and stability. For a problem to persist this long, there has to be faults in the systems put in place to eradicate this problem. The failure of food security action plans can be attributed to inaccurate analysis of the situation at hand, thereby presenting inadequate solutions.
Clover also conceptualizes hunger as a political creation that has to be eradicated by political means. This can also be seen in the Marxist theory explanation for the persistence of poverty induced hunger caused by the ignorance of the global economy. In here we see inadequate political response by governments to food security issues such as crop failures. This calls for an understanding that goes beyond the conventional means to understand food security and implement effective policies.


Accelerated growth of urban centres and populations is a very recent occurrence especially in Sub Saharan Africa. This is not to say that urban centres have not existed before. The alarming growth rate is what causes it to be a crisis and object of analysis in the scope of environmental security. The rapid nature of growth of urban centres as experienced in developing countries has had various economic, physical and social implications. Sub Saharan Africa has had the highest urban growth rate in the world so far. To understand the problem posed by this rapid urbanization, we look at the notion of sustainable development and its economic, ecological and socio-cultural or political aspects. The rapid growth rate of these urban centres exceeds the rate of creation of possibilities for opportunity seekers. This cripples the cities’ efforts in meeting service delivery needs. This has led to a higher rate of urban poverty. There has also been increased rates of crime and human insecurity. Enforcing the rule of law and ensuring public security has been one of the key challenges in urban governance for Sub Saharan Africa. Increased cases of crime and violence hinder potential investors from setting up in these urban centres. Crime and violence can be linked to deprivation in the sense that poverty and social exclusion has led to people resorting to crime. Climate change and food insecurity for those in the rural areas has also been a factor that has encouraged migration to urban centers.
Many of the urban poor are forced to live in places that are not ideal for human welfare. They tend to set up informal settlements or shelters that are mostly illegal. Most governments incentive on this usually is to destroy these temporary shelters and force the people to leave without providing alternatives. An example is the ‘Clean up’ operation in Zimbabwe in 2005. According to a UN Habitat report, what started as a clean up exercise developed into a nationwide campaign destroying anything the government termed illegal. The social, economic and political circumstances in which the events took place share trends with the current rapid and chaotic urbanization process in many African countries. This makes it a huge environmental security concern that needs to be dealt with to prevent unmanageable situations.

Environmental Insecurity Effects to National and Regional Security

Climate change does have great effects on the state and regional security, this is because climate change undermines the capacity of states to protect its nationals from all kinds of threats whether military or non-military. According to Barnett and Adger, states depend on revenues acquired from the agricultural sector which is mainly affected by climate change and without this; the functioning of a state is affected. Furthermore, when livelihoods of people are lost due to extreme climatic events like tropical storms and drought, it weakens states’ potential to deliver opportunities and services that help people to sustain their livelihoods.
Climate change also affects the growth of state and seeing as climate change also crosses national borders, this devastation also extends to regions such as the Sub-Saharan region. Economic growth is central to the objectives of states, as this ensures the survival of states, the negative effects that climate change has on natural resources affects economic growth and in turn affect national and region security. Climate change is termed as a threat multiplier, this is to mean that it worsens the already present conflicts such as civil wars and the wars against organized groups experienced in several states across the Sub-Saharan Africa region.
Human Security

According to Haq, the post-Cold war era has emphasized the security of individuals rather than states. This is unlike before whereby more focus was given to states, as states worked tirelessly to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. Climatic changes caused by human activities such as pollution, deforestation and industrialization affect human security directly in different ways. Flooding and landslides are some of them, caused by heavy rainfall and this was witnessed in Kenya between October and December, 2019 which led to loss of lives and displacement of people.
There are also diseases which are contracted following events such as flooding. Diseases such as cholera caused by the contamination of water which could take place during floods is common. This took place in Mozambique 2000, whereby there was an outbreak of cholera after extreme floods and later in Cabo Delgado, a province in Mozambique in 2013. Human health is also affected when climate change affects agriculture causing people not to acquire or afford food, which leads to under nutrition.

The relationship between environmental changes and violent conflicts has had varying opinions, both on the proposing and opposing sides. According to Gleditsch, there is no empirical evidence linking violent conflicts to climate change and this is based on different studies on the matter. However, individuals such as Hendrix and Salehyan, submit that variations from usual weather patterns foster the likelihood of conflicts. This is because when people feel like their basic needs such as food or water (resources commonly affected by climate change) is threatened, they normally result to conflicts.
Many people in sub Saharan Africa, especially in the rural areas, depend on agriculture for their daily income and food and instances where severe flooding has destroyed their produces or even drought, there exists high risks of conflicts occurring as individuals try to sustain themselves. This illustrates that human insecurity increases chances of violent conflicts. Furthermore, the continued changes in climate that have not been witnessed before places great pressure on the currently available resources and their distribution which in turn increases the probability of violent conflicts related to climate.
Disaster induced migration is the movement of individuals from one area to another due to climatic disasters such as famine, drought, floods, landslides or tropical cyclones. Instances where movements are in high numbers, there is likelihood of conflicts between the migrants and the local communities in the destination areas. According to Gemenne, increase in migration attributed by climate change-linked factors are envisioned to occur in the Sub-Saharan Africa region due to the rise in sea-level and decreased availability of resources caused by extreme weather events.

Food Security

According to the World Food Summit (1996), food security is realized when every individual can access sufficient and nutritious food at all times in order to meet one’s basic needs and for an active and healthy life. The agricultural productivity in the sub Saharan region is predicted to decrease by a considerable amount, this is from 21% to 9% come 2080 due to climate change. Ethiopia, for instance, is facing serious challenges when it comes to food production as a result of climate change, this is because the country records annual production losses from one year to the other.
There is also growing data connecting the invasion of desert locusts in the Horn of Africa late 2019 to climate change which threatens food security in the region. This is because these locusts feed on crops meant for millions of people. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, these locusts migrated from Arabian desert in large numbers. FAO also assessed that the invasion in Kenya was the largest witnessed in 70 years and 25 years in Ethiopia and Somalia. Climate change comes into play here as factors such as uncommon wet conditions and cyclones linked to the climatic system of Indian Ocean Dipole facilitated this invasion. The large number of cyclones provided winds that helped carry the locusts over long distances.

Water Security

According to Bajpai, common non-military threats to security include environmental degradation and water scarcity. Hence, the result of one not being able to obtain their basic water needs for growing food and to practice healthy living is extensive human suffering and ecological disruption. This further goes to show how easily conflicts can occur as a result of water. Drought conditions, which is among the extreme weather events affects the availability and quality of water across the Sub-Saharan region.
Climatic changes pose a challenge on shallow ground-water; this is because contamination can be caused by extreme rainfall. Water in different communities especially in the rural areas of different parts of the Sub-Saharan Africa depends on for human consumption and other domestic needs. Other than the fact that the Sub-Saharan region has a warm climate and is exposed to inconsistent rains, it is also affected by climate changes through an increase in evaporative losses. Factors such as irrigation and hydropower production only seem to put a strain on the water available and it is getting worse with population and economic growth.


The agricultural sector is also at risk due to climate change, this is because agriculture in the Sub-Saharan region is highly dependent on precipitation and the crops are sensitive to high temperatures during the growing season. The IPCC expressed with great conviction that the yields of major cereal crop in the African region would be negatively affected by climate change, with regional variations (Niang, 2014). This is already happening, seeing as the annual average temperature across the Sub-Saharan Africa is already above the optimal temperature for wheat during the growing season.
Livestock production in the Sub-Saharan Africa is also being threatened by climate change, livestock which is an important source of food, that is, meat, milk and other dairy products. Livestock is also a source of livelihood and offers back up in case of crop failure. The pastoral communities in the dry areas of the Sahel, for instance, depend greatly on natural resources such as pasture, fodder, water and forest products, which are directly affected by climatic variations. Livestock dependent on agricultural wastes are also vulnerable to extreme climatic events like drought.
Climate change is a major cause of environmental insecurity across Sub Saharan Africa. Therefore measures to prevent and reduce climate change should be taken for example the use of renewable sources of energy like solar, wind or geothermal; preventing air pollution by reduction of fossil fuels consumption and regulation or industry emissions; and proper waste management through recycling.
Relevant organizations like UNEP and governments should adopt policies that will trigger the interests of the people to participate in conserving and protecting the environment in various ways for example including the in the process and activities and addressing poverty in order to reduce pressure on natural resources. This is important as conservation plays a big role in preventing environmental degradation as well as protection of natural resources.
Conflict situations are a common occurrence in Sub Saharan Africa and in some situations these conflicts can negatively impact on environmental security. This is because conflicts either derail efforts directed towards environmental protection or conflicts result in environmental damage directly or indirectly. State in Sub Saharan Africa should therefore indulge in environmental cooperation at both local and international levels so as to strengthen efforts towards conflict management, prevention and recovery.
Food security is another factor that greatly impacts on environmental security. Achieving food security is such a struggle in Sub Saharan Africa as it faces challenges like an underdeveloped agricultural sector, disease such as HIV that affect man power and poor policies.
These challenges should be addressed as food security contributes to environmental security for example ensuring good governance ensures a corruption free environment and also puts the needs of the people, that is, access to adequate food at the center thus giving room for coming up with effective policies to ensure this. In sum, it is clear that in order to effectively address environmental insecurity it is crucial to solve the underlying issues such as conflict and all other causes of environmental insecurity such as food security and climate change.