The suffering of millions of people in Mali and the wider Sahel region is rooted in the deadly combination of conflict and the climate crisis. Caught between advancing deserts, erratic weather and violence, entire communities are being forced to leave their homes, livestock and livelihoods behind.
During her first operational visit as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Mirjana Spoljaric warned that pressure is rising in the Sahel on both those who have been displaced and the host communities sharing their water, food and land. This pressure must be mitigated so that resentment doesn’t build and fracture links between communities.
“These families are desperate for a better way of life. I sat with women who had to bury their children as they were fleeing their village. Many lost husbands and brothers. Humanitarian assistance is limited, and they don’t see a way out. We have to break this vicious circle of climate change and violence that is preventing people from living on their lands,” Ms Spoljaric said.
Bintou, a mother of 10 whose husband died of thirst as the family fled their village, lives in a simple, makeshift camp outside Gao with five of her children; the other five are dispersed around the region.
We haven’t known peace since the crisis of 2012,” Bintou said. “After recent deadly attacks we were forced to flee our village. Armed fighters killed all the men, our husbands, our sons, and our girls, and raped some of the women.
Violence has forced 4.5 million out of their homes in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, a 200% increase in the past two years. With 80% of the population of the Sahel relying on agriculture to survive, being displaced means they lose access to their lands and their livestock.
Climate change is a daily reality for Mali. Entire lakes, such as Lake Faguibine, have dried up, erasing entire ecosystems and forcing communities to move. Desertification is spreading and ground water is becoming increasingly scarce, pressuring farmers. Mali lost 90,000 hectares of yield in 2021 due to drought, impacting the livelihood of more than 3 million Malians. This resulted in a 10.5% decrease in cereal production across the country.
The Mali Red Cross, whose volunteers are on the ground every day with communities across the country, is at the core of humanitarian work in Mali. The volunteers’ motivation, dedication and contribution cannot be overstated. But the challenges remain immense.
“At a time of global instability and rising humanitarian challenges, we must ensure that countries in the Sahel are not forgotten,” Ms Spoljaric said. “While responding to ongoing emergencies is critical, targeted investments are needed to help people adapt to rapid changes caused by climate change and break their dependence on aid.”