Global warming has compromised Africa's ability to feed its population. It's time African nations adapt to the changing scenario
SOMETHING STRANGE is happening across East Africa. The region, which receives rainfall twice a year, is reeling from the worst drought in a century. Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda, which boast of rich agricultural lands, have received below-average rainfall for the third year in a row. This has caused food prices to skyrocket to record levels, doubling the price of staple cereals in some areas, and exacerbating the acute food insecurity prevailing over most parts of the continent. kOver the past six months, severe drought conditions have contributed to the displacement of more than 700,000 people within Somalia, 300,000 in Ethiopia and over 41,000 in Kenya,” says Jemal Seid, Director, Climate and Geospatial Research, at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.
In some places camel carcasses are being stacked up as even the world’s most robust animal has not been able to survive this persistent drought. High number of people at the risk of starvation prompted South Sudan, a largely water-surplus region, to declare famine in February—the first such declaration anywhere in the world since 2011. In March, the World Health Organization warned that Somalia is at the risk of third famine in 25 years. According to the UN, 12 million people in the region are now dependent on humanitarian aid.
The persistent dry conditions are partly linked to the Indian Ocean dipole, which is similar to El Niño weather phenomenon in the Pacific and pushes away the moist air that brings rain to East Africa. But scientific studies show that the severity of the problem is due to changing climate. “The impacts of current and recent droughts in East Africa are likely to have been aggravated by climate change,” notes the 2017 report by Oxfam, an international confederation of charitable organisations focused on the alleviation of global poverty.
The latest Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc), released in 2014, had warned of such an eventuality in Africa. Over the past century, temperatures across the continent have soared by 0.5°C or more, with minimum temperatures rising faster than the maximum temperatures. Higher temperatures result in greater evaporation, causing soil moisture depletion, reinforcing drier conditions and intensifying the impacts of failed rains, noted the ipcc report. According to the 2016 report by Berlin-based policy institute Climate Analytics, summer monsoon rain, which brings maximum precipitation to East Africa, has decreased in recent years due to rapid warming of the Indian Ocean. These changing climatic conditions pose the third whammy for a continent, already struggling with the need to feed more and more people and rising food import bill.
“Climate change has compromised Africa’s ability to feed herself,” says Oscar Magenya, chief research scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, Nairobi. “Climate change affects many physical and biological systems, disrupting growing seasons, fluctuating plant and animal ranges and resulting in the emergence of virulent pests and diseases,” Magenya explains. In Sahel, for instance, most farmers depend on rain-fed crops. But these days rains do not last long enough to grow a full crop. This shrinking rainy season is affecting food security and exacerbating malnutrition in the region. In an April report to ipcc, experts have said that in some countries, yields from rain-fed crops could be reduced by up to 50 per cent by 2020.
Recurrent droughts is fuelling desertification. Sahel region, which alternately experiences wet and dry seasons, has been suffering from drought on a
regular basis since the early 1980s. As a result, says Peter Tarfa, acting director of the climate change department under Nigeria’s environment ministry, semi-arid Sahel is not only fast turning into a desert but also encroaching on northern Nigeria, affecting farming and pastoral activities in the region.
While there is no study to link climate change with dwindling water resources, the fact is the Congo, the world’s second-largest river, is experiencing a 50 per cent drop in its water levels. Lake Chad has shrunk by nearly 90 per cent since 1963. A prolonged drought could affect large parts of the shoreline of Lake Victoria—the world’s largest tropical lake and the source of the Nile— which depends on rainfall for 80 per cent of the water. This would destroy fish breeding grounds and traditional agriculture, putting millions of lives at risk. In West Africa, as rising sea levels redraw the shoreline and ocean acidification damages coral reefs, fishing and agriculture that form the foundation of livelihoods suffer a blow. The coast accounts for 56 per cent of the region’s gdp.
WHY AT THE RECEIVING END
What countries across Africa are experiencing is nothing unusual in this age of Anthropocene. Then why does the continent bear the insurmountable loss and damage? Munich-based reinsurance company Munich Re offers an explanation. While climate change is a global problem, its impacts are unevenly distributed, with poor and developing countries bearing the maximum brunt. The impact of natural disasters is much greater on developing countries—currently 13 per cent of their gdp—than on rich nations, where it is 2 per cent, according to Munich Re. There is also a disparity among different parts of the developing world. While Asia is highly exposed to natural disasters, Africa is most vulnerable to its impacts. According to the Natural Hazards Vulnerability Index by risk analysis and research company Verisk Maplecroft, nine of 10 countries found most vulnerable on the index are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Analysis by Down To Earth shows that climate change impacts are more pronounced in Africa because of a few reasons. One, agriculture is largely rain-fed and underdeveloped; two, 90 per cent of the farms are small yet contribute to 80 per cent of the total food production; and three, a majority of the farmers have few financial resources, limited access to infrastructure and extremely limited access to weather and technological information.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (fao), in developing countries the
REUTERS Displaced people gather at an artificial water pan near Habaas town of Awdal region in Somaliland in April 2016. As East Africa reels from the worst drought in a century, scientific studies show the impact of drought is more severe because of climate change