Climate Change’s Impact on Human Rights in the Sahel

By: Makayla Loeb

The implications and impacts of climate change are cross-cutting and far reaching. The impacts of climate change present themselves in many obvious ways, through things such as extreme weather events, sea level rise and loss of species. However, climate change also impacts aspects of life in less obvious ways, as climate change underlies almost every issue faced by the global community and poses a major threat to the fulfillment and enjoyment of many human rights. The humanitarian crisis in the Sahel exemplifies this, as the region is facing multiple compounding crises, and climate change underpins each one of them. The Sahel region in Africa faces “many complex and interconnected challenges,” ranging from food and water insecurity, to forced migration and armed conflict.[1] Climate change interacts with and worsens conditions, which intensifies the impacts of these crises.

The deteriorating access to vital resources, such as food and water, are directly impacted by climate change in the region. The Sahel region in Africa has a history of strong climatic variations and irregular rainfall, which is one of the greatest obstacles to food security in the region.[2] The frequency and severity of these climatic variations, such as flood and drought, are increasing as a result of climate change.[3] Similarly, climate change is changing the terrain in the area, causing desertification in many areas, leaving the land barren and untenable.[4] The changes in terrain directly impede access to food and water in the region.[5] Additionally, major sources of water in the region are drying up, further worsening access to the resource. Lake Chad, for example, has seen a near 90% reduction, as the lake shrunk from 25,000 square kilometers to 2,000 square kilometers.[6]

Due to competing access for resources in the region, “interacting with other social and economic factors have resulted in conflicts among rural populations in the West African Sahel.”[7] As climate change intensifies land use conflict, it triggers forced migration, which further exacerbates existing issues in the region.[8] Due to scarcity of resources, and the Sahel’s largest employment sector being agriculture, are forcing many to migrate in search of access to food, water and tenable land.[9] This internal displacement is causing conflict, as farmers and herdsmen who are seeking fertile land, often violently take land from the current occupants, further exacerbating forced migration, as this causes the current occupants to flee.[10]

The crises in the Sahel violates international law, as there are certain rights which are guaranteed under international instruments. For example, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is violated. Under the Declaration, people are guaranteed the right to a standard of living, adequate for health and well-being, including food and necessary social services.[11] Access to food is directly hampered as a result of climate change in the region, and is expected to worsen as nearly 4.8 million people are threatened with hunger during the lean season.[12] Similarly, The Convention on the Rights of the Child is violated, as Article 9 ensures that a child shall not be separated from their parents against their will.[13] However, “hundreds of children [are] killed, wounded or forcibly separated from their parents” as a result of conflict in the region.[14] Additionally, the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is impeded by the situation in the Sahel. Sustainable Development Goal 1 seeks to eradicate poverty, which is more widespread in the Sahel region than any other area in Africa with nearly 80% of the population in the Sahel lives on less than $2 U.S.D. a day.[15] One of the leading drivers of widespread poverty in the area is due to loss of income caused by drought, as agriculture is the largest industry for employment in the area and drought impacts employability.[16]

Climate change underpins and exacerbates the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel. Climate change violates human rights and has been labeled “the human rights challenge of the twenty-first century.”[17] States and governments should apply a human rights-based approach to climate change. In doing so, governments would strengthen their response to this ongoing threat, while reaffirming their commitment to human rights. This approach builds on commitments already made to human rights via international human rights agreements, as well as commitments to climate change through international climate policy agreements, such as the Paris Agreement. “Climate change is here, and it is impeding the fulfillment of our [human] rights,” by applying a human-rights based approach to climate change, governments will be able to rectify this growing and urgent crisis.[18]

Image from ISS

[1] Andre-Michel Essoungou, The Sahel: One region, many crises, United Nations, African Renewal, (last visited Mar. 19, 2021).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] COP 21, Understanding Human Rights and Climate Change, UNFCCC, (last accessed Mar. 17, 2021).

[5] Id.

[6]  John Osonwa, Call for inputs, OHCHR, (last visited Mar. 18, 2021).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Andre-Michel Essoungou, supra note 1.

[10] John Osonwa, supra note 6.

[11] G.A. Res. 217A, at Art. 25 (1948).

[12] Joint Press Release, UNFAO, UNICEF and WFP, UN Agencies raise alarm in the Central Sahel where millions face hunger amid rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis (Feb. 3, 2020)

[13] G.A. Res. 1386 (XIV), at Art. 9 (1959).

[14] UN: Sahel conflict having devastating impact on children, hundreds killed, DW (2019)

[15] Ernest Harsch, The new face of the Sahel, United Nations (Nov. 2017); Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere, United Nations,

[16] Andre-Michel Essoungou, supra note 1.

[17] Patrick Toussaint, A human rights-based approach to loss and damage under the climate change regime, 20 Climate Policy 743-757.

[18] Human rights are at threat from climate change, but can also provide solutions, United Nations Environment Programme, (last accessed Mar. 18, 2021).

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