London — Erratic weather linked to climate change is forcing people to flee their homes in West Africa's Sahel region, a trend that could worsen dramatically as temperatures rise, a rights group warned.
Refugees International (RI) urged the United Nations and donor countries to improve the tracking of this new form of displacement and work with national governments to better protect those affected.
Some 11 million people are still at risk of hunger in the Sahel following last year's food crisis in the semi-arid region, which borders the Sahara.
"In particularly bad years, 80 or 90 percent of people will leave their villages altogether in some parts of the Sahel," said RI's climate displacement expert Alice Thomas, author of a new report on the effects of recurrent climate shocks in the Sahel.
"More recurrent droughts and unpredictable rainfall have led to repeatedly poor harvests. As a result, poor households are no longer able to feed their families and increasingly they must leave their villages in order to survive."
Although the Sahel region is prone to drought, rains have become more erratic, making it hard for farmers and herders to anticipate when and where rain will fall and how much there will be.
More frequent droughts and floods have reduced crop yields and livestock herds, and wiped out villagers' savings - leaving many with no choice but to abandon their land, the report said.
It is not known how many people in the Sahel have been displaced as a result of climate-related weather changes, but Thomas said evidence suggested the problem was widespread and getting worse.
In the far north of Burkina Faso, it is estimated that roughly 30 percent of households had relocated in the last 20 years, Thomas added.
With some climate experts predicting a temperature rise of 3-4 degrees Celsius by the middle of the century and a few anticipating an increase of more than 5 degrees, the problem will only become more severe, she warned.
"There are 100 million people living in the Sahel and 80 percent are completely dependent on rainfall to survive so if we are going to see increased droughts and higher temperatures, it will potentially affect millions of people," added Thomas, who visited Burkina Faso and Niger in June.
"The countries of the Sahel are already some of the poorest and most unstable in the world, and now climate displacement could create even more social and economic problems."
Thomas said no one was tracking the number of people uprooted by slower-onset disasters like food crises that may evolve over several years because there are no widely accepted methodologies for doing so.
The annual estimates of numbers of people displaced by natural disasters compiled by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre do not include people displaced by droughts or more gradual changes linked to global warming.
Malnutrition rates in many areas in the Sahel regularly exceed the emergency threshold of 15 percent. In Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, and Chad nearly half of young children suffer chronic malnutrition.
Last year's Sahel food crisis, the third in seven years, left 18 million people at risk of hunger and 1 million children at risk of starvation.
The United Nations recently appealed for more than $1 billion to help feed 11 million people in the region where ongoing food shortages have been exacerbated by political instability in Mali.