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On the Front Line of Climate Change: Harnessing the British Army’s Battlegroup in Mali

UK forces operating in Mali are well-positioned to confront some of the core security challenges arising from climate change in the region.

Mali is a canary in the coal mine for the interface of climate change and security. Temperatures are increasing at a rate 1.5 times higher than the global average and the incidence of droughts and flooding is rising. It is evident that the detrimental impacts from ongoing conflict, political instability and weak government institutions are being exacerbated by climate change. By virtue of having a Battlegroup in Mali, the British Army is perfectly placed to further understand and mitigate the negative climate-security trends already underway. Using their core reconnaissance skills of finding, understanding and influencing within the environments in which they operate, the 300 soldiers from the UK’s Light Cavalry Battlegroup (BG) act as the eyes and ears of the United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Their input is crucial to allowing the UN to understand the overall effectiveness of the mission and shape its future direction of travel.

Considering climate change in this context, it becomes apparent that the BG’s expertise in environmental and human intelligence collection could significantly boost the international community’s understanding of the Malian climate-security nexus. To highlight this point, this article analyses four threats currently being multiplied by climate change: gender-based violence (GBV), food insecurity, resource-based conflict and extreme weather. If harnessed correctly, UK forces could be used as a collection asset that forms part of a comprehensive integrated approach driven by the UN to reduce the impact of climate change on security. The MINUSMA mandate recognises the impact of climate change on the security and stability of Mali, but it is unclear if it is sufficiently prioritised and therefore allocated enough resources. Combining all of the MINUSMA tools available would encourage holistic solutions and a realistic long-term roadmap for Mali that properly considers climate change as one of the core challenges to sustainable peace and security. The building of such a roadmap starts with the collection of raw information and intelligence – a role perfectly befitting of the Light Cavalry Battlegroup.

Gender-Based Violence

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that resource scarcity, conflicts and displacement caused by environmental degradation are deepening existing inequalities and, at times, increasing the prevalence of GBV. In Mali, a recent United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA) article considers GBV through the impact that the climate-related degradation of food and water resources is having upon females. The knock-on effects are two-fold. Firstly, as sources dwindle, women and girls from some communities are covering greater distances to find potable water, food and firewood. The increased movement of women away from their homes puts them at increased risk of sexual violence whilst they are isolated and more vulnerable. Secondly, some women in Mali are under increasing pressure as they struggle to provide meals and fresh water, and in the face of limited provisions they can experience increasing levels of intimate partner violence. A further aspect highlighted by the UNOCHA and the IUCN is the increased potential for child marriage. This arises as a last resort for families struggling to cope with scarce food and incomes manifested by increasing droughts and extremes of weather.

The access and range of the UK Battlegroup could be invaluable in helping to map the changing landscape of food production in Mali

Armed with a perspective that works to understand the drivers of GBV in a climate context, the BG could survey communities with a view to identifying women who may be at increased risk. Beyond simple questioning, they could structure themselves accordingly. Adjusting the current ratio of 17 women to 283 men within the British Task Group could be the first step to encouraging more female-to-female interaction within the communities in which they operate. Furthermore, there will be a need for sufficient gender advisors and non-military gender experts who are better trained than soldiers to identify signs of GBV within communities. The indicators may range from the dislocation of child brides from their parents to the location of a community’s potable water, but without knowing what data to collect, there will be no action to correct the current trends. The information collected should be distilled by MINUSMA and directed to the relevant departments or outside agencies to implement the required action. For example, with the correct information gathered, the UN would be in a position to facilitate the building of wells in a community where this may otherwise have gone unnoticed. It may be that this aspect is made more efficient by deploying alongside local police and gendarmerie who, by default, may have a better understanding of local dynamics and be able to detect where abnormal changes are taking place. Local security forces could also help to implement physical solutions by providing local security to groups at risk or assistance delivering water to the communities most in need. If done responsibly, this would also be an easy win to help create a positive image of the local security forces in the eyes of the population at risk.

Climate Negatively Affects Food Production

Climate hazards have already led to the degradation of 80% of the Sahel’s farmlands and drastically reduced food sources. This is of grave concern in Mali, where 80% of the population rely on agriculture for their food and income and the majority are subsistence farmers. Many Malians are now trapped in a negative spiral whereby unproductive soils are unable to provide subsistence for humans and animals alike. A combined Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) paper estimates 3.6 million out of a population of 19.7 million people to be food insecure in Mali. As food insecurity continues to increase, so do aspects such as migration, illicit trafficking rings and conflict over food and fertile land.

The access and range of the BG could be invaluable in helping to map the changing landscape of food production in Mali. The BG is mounted in Jackal vehicles, and by virtue of its training will be comfortable operating at reach and in areas seldom visited by outsiders. By inserting into peripheral regions and populations, UK forces could amass invaluable data relating to rural food production. In turn, such data could provide the capacity to identify communities most at risk from an inability to produce food before it escalates to starvation, population movement or conflict. This may be seen as territory more familiar to the UN’s World Food Programme or other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but by virtue of the reach afforded by the BG’s vehicles and the soldiers’ survivability, the UN would directly benefit by incorporating the force as part of a comprehensive integrated approach. This could vastly increase both MINUSMA and the Security Council’s knowledge of real-time food production mapping in Mali and offer an opportunity to implement timely responses where they are needed.

Herders and Farmers Fight Over Resources

As alluded to in the previous section, the natural progression from a lack of food production is the movement of people to identify new sources of food. In Mali, the traditional patterns of migration are changing with climate change and risk increasing violence between herders and other livelihood groups in the areas affected by population flows. The UNOCHA reports that ‘in Mali, the cycles of farmer-herder violence and reprisals have become increasingly lethal since 2015 and resulted in nearly 700 fatalities in 2020’. This is inextricably linked to environmental degradation, with food and water shortages directly catalysing community conflicts over resources. The MINUSMA mandate is explicit in seeking to resolve local and intercommunal conflicts, but to ignore the role of climate change in multiplying or even changing the face of this source of conflict risks overlooking a key driver. Only by collating and processing data at the tactical level and canvassing those involved in fighting will the role of climate change be understood by MINUSMA.

The more the UK military spreads its footprint globally to support the Global Britain agenda, the more it will need to be ready to respond to natural disasters

The UK BG has the training and equipment to penetrate areas impacted by violence in a way that other organisations cannot. Security may dictate that international organisations and NGOs cannot access these zones, and so the role of the Task Force becomes invaluable to the UN. Accessing such areas and understanding the local conflict drivers and dynamics, as opposed to a reliance on anecdotal evidence, is key to understanding how competition for resources is shaping conflict in Mali. The output would take the gathered data and map the conflict in a way similar to the International Peace Information Service and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, but on a much more detailed and local level. Such a strategy complements the sentiments of NUPI and SIPRI, who are calling for international partners to improve analysis, joint planning and information sharing at the interface of climate change, conflict and governance. The BG’s understanding of the environment could be pivotal to driving such an approach. The boost in understanding brought to the UN would be invaluable in moving towards strategies of prevention, resilience and preparedness within communities against new waves of conflict.

Heavy Rains Hinder Humanitarian Access

In 2020 the International Committee of the Red Cross alone responded to floods affecting 80,000 people across Mali. This reporting complements that of the UNOCHA, which highlights that climate change is severely hampering the capacity of humanitarian workers to reach vulnerable groups following extreme weather patterns. A delay in humanitarian assistance to those in need not only puts stress on the factors previously discussed, but it also creates new migratory patterns as populations search for resources elsewhere. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees places the number already displaced from their homes in Mali at 300,000. Clearly, the impact of such migration is that other sources of food and water are then put under increased pressure, and the cycle of insecurity continues.

Given the context, UK forces in Mali should extend their capacity to work with a wide range of partners, and in instances like this, those partners have to include aid agencies. To help prevent the negative fallouts of climate change, the BG must be able and willing to alleviate the impact of adverse weather conditions in Mali by delivering aid to communities most in need. For a BG preparing to deploy to Mali, it will be relatively simple to include such training objectives within a pre-deployment package, but the issue is larger than just Mali. The more the UK military spreads its footprint globally to support the Global Britain agenda, the more it will need to be ready to respond to natural disasters. The training across the military should therefore adjust to acknowledge this aspect and incorporate relevant training as a core task.

Conclusion

The Malian environment is set to only become harsher. Annual temperatures across Mali are likely to increase by 1.2 to 3.6°C by the 2060s, and El Niño events will have increasingly important implications for disaster management and response. With the climatic impacts upon security already being felt in Mali, and elsewhere across the globe, it is time to ask ourselves as an organisation how we can best orientate ourselves to the challenges we face. The MINUSMA mandate acknowledges the impact of climate change on Mali’s security, but the mission is arguably not making the best use of its resources. Instead of waiting for direction to come from the UN, the British Army has an opportunity to propose positive changes to its mode of employment and confront some of the core challenges to sustainable security in Mali. Waiting is not an option and risks the BG being part of a mission that only offers part of the solution to the issues at hand.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of the UK Armed Forces, the Ministry of Defence, RUSI or any other institution.

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