The West African country of Liberia has experienced many years of devastating civil war. Now its fragile stability is threatened by the consequences of climate change.
Liberia’s recent history of conflict
Liberia has a long history of conflict and civil war. Between 1980 and 2003, various ethnic factions battled for political influence as well as power over mineral, natural and commercial strategic resources such as the infamous ‘blood diamond’. The ongoing conflict held the country hostage in a continuous internal war under which the civilian population and the economy suffered greatly. In 2003, heavy fighting and serious human rights abuses between President Charles Taylor and the rebel group Liberians for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), led to UN involvement under peacekeeping mission UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia). Eventually, the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (ACP) ended the years of civil war and UNMIL installed a National Transitional Government. The NTG ruled until new elections in 2005, when the current female president Ellen Jonhson-Sirleaf was elected.
The long term effects of the civil war are tremendous. According to estimates, the conflicts left 300,000 people dead, one out of fourteen people of the total population. Furthermore, a third of the population fled to neighboring countries. Many children and young adults are orphans and the economy has been left in ruins. Basic infrastructure and services are non-existent and malnutrition affects about 40% of children under five years old. Overall, Liberia ranks almost at the bottom of most indicators of the UN Human Development Index (out of 187 states, Liberia holds number 175). On top of these challenges, the country has to deal with the major task of rebuilding society after years of internal conflict, including the reintegration of ex-combatants into society, and persistent ethnic tensions.
A new enemy
After years of internal war and its devastating effects, Liberia is now facing a new, unconventional enemy; climate change. In its 2007 assessment report[i] on climate vulnerability, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that in African coastal states “climate variability and change could result in low-lying lands being inundated, with resultant impacts on coastal settlements (high confidence)”[ii]. Sea level rise is expected to continually increase the high socio-economic and physical vulnerability of coastal cities and settlements in coastal states such as Liberia[iii]. This could lead to increased migration to higher lands, or shock waves of migration when coastal inhabitants flee from flooding. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of Liberia underscores IPCC predictions and states that the key climatic hazards Liberia faces are coastal flooding and sea level rise. Liberia’s EPA adds that apart from migration, coastal flooding can result in loss of life, crops, livestock, and damage to infrastructure and settlements. Sea level rise also leads to direct inundation of lowlands, beach erosion, salinization of land, coastal water table effects and disruption of socio-economic activities[iv]. Coastal erosion and salinization of aquifers and rivers is also a likely effect of continuous sea level rise[v].
Present day, coastal communities are experiencing the above consequences first hand. Beach erosion and flooding is devastating homes, businesses and livelihoods. Additionally, sudden shocks such as coastal floods or storms have the potential to increase the likelihood of conflict and tension in an already fragile environment. These disasters can increase resource scarcity, migration and a more acute imbalance between scarcity and abundance. It can also offer economic and political opportunity for criminal activity[vi].Coastal communities in Liberia are often comprised of the very poor living in temporary and/or poorly constructed housing, on low-lying land and illegal settlements. These communities possess little-to-no adaptive capacity and are ill-prepared to deal with the consequences of climate change. The socio-economic circumstances and the gender situation are weak, and resilience against coastal flooding, storms and beach erosion is very low among the population living along the coast. Costs of adaptation to these climate change effects are high for poor countries such as Liberia, and little protection is in place for the inhabitants along the coastline.
The UNDP, active in Liberia to increase climate resilience of vulnerable coastal areas, has already observed that the displacement of people from seaside communities is increasing and that key economic sectors such as fishing, trade and farming are at risk. Several climate disasters have already taken place in the country, displacing more than 2500 people in 2007, leaving various communities under water on several occasions, and causing a flash flood in 2009 displacing 600 people, mostly women and children[vii]. Sea erosion has also made various parts of Liberia’s coast uninhabitable by removing meters from the coast line, destroying important infrastructure such as airports and police stations, and driving many civilians into homelessness[viii]. The UNDP states the following about the effects of current and future climate change in Liberia: “In combination, these factors threaten to significantly undermine the steps Liberia has taken towards peace, stability and development over the past half-decade”[ix].
The above developments are especially dangerous for Liberia since most of its population resides in coastal areas that are at risk of being submerged or inundated. Furthermore, Liberia is not only facing problems with sea level rise and coastal flooding. Deforestation, land degradation and inadequate management of marine resources are also contemporary challenges, and these environmental problems reinforce one another[x]. All these issues are putting a severe strain on Liberia’s economy, negatively impacting activities such as fishing, agriculture and tourism. Overall, climate change effects are threatening many aspects of the fragile Liberian society, impacting health, food and water security, resource availability, migration, human security and socio-economic development. Given Liberia’s recent history of severe conflict, these are vulnerabilities that the country could do without.
International assistance needed
The severe climate change consequences faced by Liberia are recognized by the international community, but more assistance is needed. The UNDP is currently working with EPA and UNMIL to increase resilience against sea erosion and flooding. Liberia is also working with its neighboring nations on the issue within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). However, these projects face many challenges and action has been limited. Partly due to its recent history of conflict, Liberia lacks scientific and engineering capacity, reliable scientific data, financial means and effective public institutions on the national level. Moreover, local communities also have no financial or human capital that could contribute to the effectiveness of resilience projects[xi]. Because of these and other challenges, adaptation projects are difficult to undertake, even with help from external donors. They are also not always beneficial for the people of Liberia in the short term, as some of the residents of squatter’s shacks near the sea will have to leave their homes while coastal resilience projects are being conducted. Unfortunately, there is currently not enough funding to compensate these civilians for relocations.
An uncertain future
Liberia is dealing with several severe consequences of climate change, which threaten the human security of the population and the fragile peace and stability the country has been able to uphold since the end of the civil war. Lacking adaptive capacity and facing numerous other challenges, the people of Liberia are now forced to deal with a new enemy; one that will not agree to a ceasefire.
[i] Boko, M., et al., 2007: Africa. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, pp. 433-467
[ii] Boko, M., et al. 2007: Africa. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: pp 435.
[iii] Boko, M., et al. 2007: Africa. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: pp 450
[iv] Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia, 2007. Liberia National Programme of Action: pp. 4
[v] Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia, 2007. Liberia National Programme of Action: pp. 4
[vi] Drakenberg, O., et al. 2014. Liberia Environmetal and Climate Change Policy Brief: pp. 5
[vii] United Nations Development Programme 2010. Enhancing Resilience Of Vulnerable Coastal Areas To Climate Change Risks In Liberia: pp. 10
[viii] United Nations Development Programme 2010. Enhancing Resilience Of Vulnerable Coastal Areas To Climate Change Risks In Liberia: pp. 10
[ix] United Nations Development Programme 2010. Enhancing Resilience Of Vulnerable Coastal Areas To Climate Change Risks In Liberia: pp. 12
[x] Drakenberg, O., Andersson, F., Wingqvist, G.O., 2014. Liberia Environmetal and Climate Change Policy Brief: pp. 2
[xi] United Nations Development Programme 2010. Enhancing Resilience Of Vulnerable Coastal Areas To Climate Change Risks In Liberia: pp. 16
Boko, M., I. Niang, A. Nyong, C. Vogel, A. Githeko, M. Medany, B. Osman-Elasha, R. Tabo and P. Yanda, 2007: Africa. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK: 433-467
Drakenberg, O., Andersson, F., Wingqvist, G.O., 2014. Liberia Environmetal and Climate Change Policy Brief, Sida’s Helpdesk for Environment and Climate Change: 1-20
Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia, 2007. Liberia National Programme of Action. Government of Liberia: 1-16
United Nations Development Programme 2010. Enhancing Resilience Of Vulnerable Coastal Areas To Climate Change Risks In Liberia, United Nations Development Programme: 1-73