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On a satellite map of Mali, the Inner Niger Delta looks like a giant green smudge on a beige, sandy background. It is remote, remarkable and a reminder of the complex interplay between some of the biggest issues facing Europe and climate change. The delta itself is lush, blessed with a water supply from the Niger River that has turned this part of the semi-arid Sahel into a veritable oasis. But it is also vulnerable. The natural balance between its people, its ecosystem and the waters that give it life can easily be upset, with shockwaves reaching as far away as Europe. In the Netherlands, which is grappling with issues such as security and migration, the Niger Delta is a reminder of the irrevocable links between these issues and the impact of climate change.

The Sahel is no easy place to live, sandwiched between the blank expanse of the Sahara desert and the fertile coast of West Africa. The Inner Niger Delta stands out against the rest of this water-scarce region, fed by the great Niger River. It rises in the hills of Guinea before describing a giant crescent through Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, then down to Nigeria and its outlet on the Gulf of Guinea. During its passage through Mali, something remarkable happens: not long after the regional capital of Mopti, the river splits, spreading out across the land in a myriad of channels, many of which sink into the earth as though absorbed by a sponge. As it leaves this landlocked delta, it regathers as a more regular river for the remainder of its journey.

Unsurprisingly, the watery wealth of this delta region has a profound impact on the landscape and its people. It supports a wealth of small-scale agriculture and fishing, with countless villages and settlements on tiny islands in between the channels. But the balance that sustains the delta is a fine one, and several factors make it complicated.

At the Edge of the Sahara

Up on the edge of the Sahara are the bases of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and training bases for the international coalition – including Dutch soldiers and police - that is combatting it. These insurgents are known to target delta communities, which are themselves being disrupted by discord between generations: ubiquitous mobile phones have contributed to a younger generation of delta residents becoming dissatisfied with the lives led by their elders. Indeed, many migration routes from West Africa to Europe cut through the region, bringing the influence of the trafficking gangs. Upstream, dam projects in Guinea and Mali itself threaten to disrupt the flow of the Niger into the delta. Meanwhile, water-hungry commercial agriculture for crops such as sugar cane has arrived, funded by outsiders including the Chinese. And then there is the climate.

Few things have the capacity to disturb the balance of the Inner Niger Delta as much as climate change. Rising temperatures could destroy livelihoods, threaten the Malian economy and turn more people towards escape routes – whether to urban slums, migration routes north to Europe or the ranks of AQIM. Places like the Inner Niger Delta are ground zero for climate change. What happens there will also affect what happens in Europe.

The danger is evident, but what can be done about it? The first step is to recognize these critical linkages. That is why I recently attended a High Level Conference on Climate, Peace and Security in Brussels, convened by the Head of the European External Action Service, Federica Mogherini. One area that was discussed was the role of data in helping us understand what is happening in places like the Inner Niger Delta, and the complex interplay between natural and human factors. World Resources Institute is currently one of the partners involved in a project called the Water, Peace and Security initiative, funded in part by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is aimed at combining data to produce an early warning system. Elsewhere, measures such as infrastructure spending or financial tools can be part of the solution. But these only serve to mitigate or warn about the problem.

The second step, then, is more familiar. We must continue – and increase – our efforts to slow down man-made climate change. Instead of thinking about a bald figure like 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), think of the impact of global warming in places like the delta. This underlines the urgency of our shift to a low-carbon circular economy. This is not just about signing off on international commitments or future competitiveness, but our own fundamental security interests: the sustainability of vulnerable regions like the Inner Niger Delta is as critical for our own security as it is for those who call those places their home.