Bloody clashes between farmers and nomadic herders in Nigeria’s central Plateau State in late June claimed at least 86 lives, as each group vied for the region’s increasingly scarce farmland. Competition for farmland has long been a flash point in parts of Africa, but with climate change putting more pressure on resources, it now threatens to become a major source of instability.
Desertification, in which fertile land becomes barren desert, now affects as much as 60% of Nigeria’s land, exacerbated by drought and climate change. As a result, cattle herders from northern Nigeria have been pushed farther and farther south to find land to graze livestock, causing friction with farmers settled in central states. As Nigeria’s population has spiraled to 191 million, and amid an ongoing conflict with Islamist insurgents, the competition for land has become fierce. At least 10,000 people have died in the resulting clashes since 2011, and many more have lost their homes.
Across the Sahel, more than 80% of people depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, according to the U.N. As water and farmland become scarcer, land conflicts in countries with strong ethnic divides are poised to get far worse. Already, clashes like those in Nigeria have killed tens of thousands in Mali, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and others. Millions more have been displaced, with many joining the flow of migrants to southern Europe.
In June, the U.N. Environment chief Erik Solheim urged countries to help Africa build a more sustainable future, suggesting that solar plants in the Sahel might “help green and uplift the area.” The agency has funded water-management projects in Sudan, where more than 2 million people have been displaced, partly as a result of depleted resources. But the problem of climate security isn’t limited to a corner of Africa; current estimates suggest that anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion people will be forced to migrate because of the changing climate by 2050. The competition for usable land will only get more intense.
This appears in the July 09, 2018 issue of TIME.