Senior politicians from around the world have congregated in Paris this week to thrash out details of a global climate agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties — or COP21.
African negotiators hope for a deal that commits industrialized countries to limiting their carbon emissions and preventing catastrophic global warming, and which makes resources available for those countries already on the frontline of climate change.
The impacts of climate change on Africa are complex and unpredictable — as they are across the world. Over the past decade, almost every region of the continent has experienced a greater frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts or floods.
In the Horn of Africa, the kinds of droughts that used to happen once in a generation happen every few years. In Southern Africa, the impacts of the El Niño weather event, which typically causes droughts, seem to be worsening, and water shortages have strained the infrastructure across the region. All along the Sahel — the arid band of Africa that fringes the Sahara desert — droughts have become the norm, destroying areas that were once productive.
“Events that used to be once in 30 years are happening with greater frequency,” says Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, ex-minister of finance of Nigeria and former managing director of the World Bank. “There’s a lot of worry about the impact of climate change on food production, land management, on issues relating to livelihoods.”
Food security and growth
African agriculture is particularly vulnerable to unpredictable weather. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 95% of agriculture is rain-fed, meaning that it is entirely dependent on the weather — unlike irrigated agriculture, which often use boreholes or water stores.
The majority of African farmers are also smallholders, who typically grow food for themselves and their families and sell the surplus. They are often unable to save much money between seasons, and the loss of their crops due to drought or flood can push them over the poverty line.
These small farmers are particularly vulnerable to unpredictable weather. Without access to detailed weather forecasting or new, drought-resistant varieties of crops, small farmers — who have planted at the same time and in the largely the same way for generations — lack the tools to adapt.
Crop failures undermine food security and push people into poverty, creating deep social pain. They could also be economically devastating. Agriculture is the single largest employer on the continent, and many countries have pegged their hopes for future economic growth and diversification on the sector.
Urbanization and health
The collapse of rural livelihoods adds to pressure on Africa’s cities. The continent is already urbanizing rapidly, due to a combination of population growth and economic changes. By 2050, the continent’s urban population is forecast to grow from 435 million people today, to 1.3 billion, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
This migration, exacerbated by climate change, adds to pressure on urban services and infrastructure. Many rural-to-urban migrants struggle to find formal and stable employment, adding to already significant social tension over inequality and jobs, while cities themselves are vulnerable to the changing climate.
Some higher altitude cities, such as Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, have been free of malaria for decades, but a warming climate is creating the conditions for the spread of the disease, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In other cities, water stress — due to reduced rainfall in surrounding areas — raises the spectre of water-borne diseases as citizens turn to untreated supplies. In Botswana’s capital Gaborone, residents have had to buy water from private suppliers after the city’s main dam dried up, and local experts warn that there was an immediate and negative health impact, with cases of diarrhoea spiking.
Growth and infrastructure
Even well-managed economies, such as Botswana, are struggling with the impacts of extreme weather. Neighbouring South Africa, which is also one of the richest countries on the continent, has had to implement rolling water outages in major cities as it struggles with supplies. Both countries now have to set aside billions of dollars to invest in their infrastructure.
The additional drain on resources is another brake on economic development for a continent that has been growing rapidly for the last 15 years. African governments and development experts are worried that climate change could halt or reverse these gains, if countries do not prepare for its impacts.
However, Okonjo-Iweala is hopeful that the continent is able to innovate and build resilience to climate impacts.
“I think the awareness is increasing, because people are seeing the consequences of climate change. There is no doubt that the issues of drought and flood have… manifested in a way that people are now beginning to take notice,” she says.
Twenty-six countries have now signed up to an African Union-led facility, the African Risk Capacity, which offers insurance against extreme climate events, quickly disbursing money to help governments to finance emergency response. The ARC is also looking at ways to finance longer-term projects to adapt and build resilience.
“There are innovative financing mechanisms. We are all searching for ways to finance the solutions to these problems. This really provides one of these solutions,” Okonjo-Iweala, who chairs the ARC’s governing board, says. “We are building more and more instruments to help countries withstand climate change.”