Battles Over Water Are Stoking a War in Africa’s Sahel

The solutions aren't simple, and conflicts are on the rise.
September 25, 2020, 3:45pm
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PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP via Getty Images

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OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Boubacar Maiga mediates conflicts between farmers and animal herders in Burkina Faso. When disputes break out, it’s his job to investigate and try to reconcile the involved parties.

One incident, he told VICE News, turned violent. In an eastern village called Kantiari, water became a source of tension due to climate change and eroding access. Farmers in the village were unhappy when herders brought their animals to graze on farmland, and in one altercation, a drunk farmer put a flashlight in a herder’s face. The herder got angry, and “beat the [farmer] to death,” Maiga said.

When Maiga visited the village two days later, he discovered that the farmers had burnt many of the herder's houses in retaliation and beat the herders with sticks. The farmers said they would not allow them to use the land for grazing animals again, and the herders fled the village. Access to water was at the root of what happened in Kantiari. “The village has two big dams. [Herders were] coming more often to use the dam,” Maiga said. “There is less water there now.”

Across the region Maiga covers, political insecurity and climate change are leading to conflicts like these. Maiga’s NGO, the Communication Network for Pastoralism, operates in the Sahel. A semi-arid strip of land that skirts the southern edge of the Sahara, the Sahel spans more than 3,000 miles across the African continent. Desertification and erratic rainfall has been squeezing access to water and causing strife in communities with more and more frequency throughout the Sahel, impacting other countries like Mali, Niger and Chad. From 2003 to 2009, the Sahel was the site of what some regard as the first recent “water war” in Darfur, Sudan. Among other issues, access to water was at the root of the conflict, which led to a genocide of 400,000 people. Over the last 10 years, the western portion of the Sahel has descended into its own dispute, and terrorists linked to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, as well as local terrorist groups and bandits, are exploiting these conflicts to recruit fighters. They are also ramping up a war against local governments, the United Nations, and forces from the United States and France. More people have already died this year in some Sahel countries than in the whole of last year, and this will likely get worse.

“[The Sahel] is most likely the region with the largest number of people disproportionately affected by global warming,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Sahel, in 2018. Thiaw is probably correct: Roughly 80% of the Sahel's farmland is degrading, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Since so much of that degradation has been attributed to climate change and lack of water, some are calling this the first climate war.

However, calling it that oversimplifies the conflict. The reality is much more complicated; state neglect in underdeveloped areas, population increases, ethnic tensions, terrorist insurgencies, and human rights abuses perpetrated by government troops also contribute to a tangled web of environmental, social, and political discord.

The Yirgou massacre in northern Burkina Faso is emblematic of the smaller localized conflicts that contribute to the wider war throughout the Sahel. In 2018 and 2019, a pogrom took place in Yirgou village, and at least 200 ethnic Fulani people, a nomadic group of mostly Muslim herders, were shot and killed by local vigilantes.

“When we have a close look at the [local] conflicts in the east and central north, they are often related to access points for water and rich grazing areas,” Mahamadou Sawadogo, a security analyst in Burkina Faso, told VICE News. “What happened in Yirgou, for instance, everything started around access to water and land.”

In Yirgou, Sawadogo added that tensions between the largely agrarian Mossi ethnic group and the Fulanis in the village had been rising over access to wells and the lands surrounding them. The Fulanis wanted to use the land for grazing animals, and the Mossis wanted it for farming. “Terrorists used it as an opportunity,” said Sawadogo. “They murdered the chief of the village, who was a Mossi. Then, the Fulani community was accused of having worked with the terrorists.” The massacre followed shortly afterwards, and reprisals have been going on in the area ever since. In January this year, VICE News visited the site of a massacre close to Yirgou which killed 36 people. There, the local Mossi community blamed the Fulani people.

Sawadogo added that conflicts over water started well before the war in the Sahel, but are becoming more and more frequent in Burkina Faso, which saw thousands die as a result of the conflict last year.

Unfortunately, some analysts think that improving access to water and building more wells will not fix the problem immediately. A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a policy think tank focused on raising awareness and providing solutions to conflicts, said policies that focus entirely on diminishing resources due to climate change miss the point. All too often, the report said, these policies neglect the complexity of the conflict and the sociological issues that surround it.

“When there is a problem with resources, there is a tendency to say let's increase the resources,” Jean-Hervé Jezequel, director of the International Crisis Group’s Sahel project, told VICE News.

“If you look at some areas that are in conflict over the past two decades, there has been an increase in the land that is cultivated for grazing or farming, but there is also an increase in the population in the area,” he added. “Climate change is not the only factor.”

The International Crisis Group report also looked at a project to build wells in Mali’s Mopti region that actually spread more violence: as new wells were built, they became new points of dispute between locals vying for access. Jezequel said that the problem may lie in too few wells being built at any one time. The only way to get around this is to build many wells simultaneously, and tackle the scarcity in one go. “In an ideal world,” Jezequel said, “there would be enough. In the meantime, what they should be doing is putting emphasis on the management and the governance of the new resource.”

Governments in the Sahel struggle to do this. Burkina Faso’s government lacks the resources to build new boreholes or wells, in addition to the security infrastructure to manage them. Instead, it has fallen to international NGOs and local community groups to try and stop the violence. And they have some success: In Darfur, careful regulation of access to water has been having an impact and has helped reconcile communities in the aftermath of the conflict. Programs like the one run by Maiga’s organization may also offer a glimmer of hope. Jean Jacques Moyenga,  another mediator of disputes between herders and farmers, told VICE News he had seen relations improve between communities in the east of Burkina Faso. “I am convinced that this insecurity will pass and all communities will go back to living in peace,” said Moyenga.

Not everyone is as sanguine: Unfortunately, Maiga thinks he is facing an uphill battle. For him, it’s often unclear what is at the root of the violence he’s trying to stop. “Twenty people were killed at a cattle market recently and witnesses said the killers were not terrorists but [government backed] defense volunteers,” he said. “In some villages people are living peacefully, but in others the situation is getting worse.”

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