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Climate change and Africa:
stormy weather ahead

By Michael Fleshman

While some parts of Africa will get less rain, other areas will experience greater flooding.

There is mounting concern around the world about the threat to people everywhere posed by climate change, as billions of tons of industrial wastes spew into the atmosphere each year, trapping too much of the sun’s heat and causing dangerous changes in climate and weather patterns around the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa produces less than 4 per cent of this waste – known as “greenhouse gases” – far less than North America, Europe, Asia and other industrialized regions. However, a UN-sponsored group of scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has found that Africa is already feeling the effects of climate change and will experience more changes in the years ahead. 

The Sahel and Africa’s other dry areas can expect to become even drier. A third of people in Africa already live in drought-prone regions. Climate changes could put the lives of an additional 75–250 million people at risk. Flood-prone areas in Southern Africa are likely to become wetter as rainfall patterns shift, causing more frequent flooding, which will divert resources from development to emergency relief assistance.

Farming in Africa, already hampered by its reliance on rain-fed irrigation and poor soils, is likely to be hit hard as droughts and flooding worsen and crop growing seasons change.  This could mean disaster on a continent where 70 per cent of workers are employed on farms and farming is often the engine for national economies — generating export earnings and inexpensive food. Experts predict that in some countries farmers will harvest just 50 per cent of their current yields by 2020.

‘Environmentally displaced’
As life becomes more difficult, the UN estimates, up to 50 million “environmentally displaced” people around the world could join the exodus of migrants already crossing borders and oceans in search of new livelihoods. Many will move into overcrowded cities that already strain to provide jobs, housing and basic services.  Climate change will also increase the risk of diseases such as malaria. Regions currently outside the malaria zone may become infested as climate change allows the mosquitoes that carry the disease to spread. The World Health Organization has warned that as many as 80 million more people around the world could become infected as a result.

Adapting to climate change
African leaders are aware of the continent’s vulnerability. They have long supported international efforts to combat global warming. But because Africa has few industries and produces relatively few greenhouse gases, reducing emissions has not been the top priority. Instead African governments, civil society and their development partners have focused on finding ways to deal with the coming shocks and on assisting vulnerable communities to adapt.  Africa’s development agenda includes projects to strengthen the ability of communities to cope with climate change. Irrigation schemes are vital for food security and are also an important defense against climate change. As seasonal rains become more erratic irrigation will help farmers keep their livelihoods, increase the food supply and remain on the land.

The problem, said Sierra Leonean climate scientist Ogunlade Davidson, is money. “Climate change will have a major impact,” he noted. “Africa will have to change its agricultural systems. But if it doesn’t have enough money, it can’t.” Irrigation, fertilizers, and better seeds all require funds. “Africa never enjoyed the benefits of putting up the greenhouse gases so it never accumulated the wealth to bear the shocks.” Now Africans have to cope with a situation they did not create, with resources they do not have. Global warming is “a double loser for countries in Africa,” he added.

Africa is receiving some assistance through two funds operated by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) established in 1991 to assist developing countries finance environmental protection projects. The Least Developed Countries Fund is only for those countries classified as LDCs, while the Special Climate Change Fund supports climate-related projects in all developing countries.

Ethiopia has received $1 million from the special fund towards a $3 million programme for projects aimed at halting soil erosion, while Kenya has received $6.5 million for a $51 mn project to help manage climate change and reduce its effects.  The problem with such grants, says Dr. Davidson, a specialist in energy and the co-author of a major IPCC report on climate change, is that they are too small to have a great impact on threatened communities. Until very recently, he observed, international funding focused on research into the causes of global warming rather than on helping poor countries cope. “Take energy. If you upgrade to cleaner energy technology it will take considerable investment — more than a country would make otherwise. Who will pay that additional cost?”

That is one reason why a global commitment to combat climate change is important, he noted, “because it is the international community that can come up with the means. If we put up bureaucratic obstacles on it, African countries will not be able to access those funds and the problem will persist.” The time for studies and pilot projects is over, he asserted. “Now is time to act.”