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The Disaster Awaiting Africa

December 4, 2009

World leaders are meeting next week at Copenhagen to discuss climate change. Have you ever thought how it will possibly affect us in Africa? Please read my contribution below which I first published in 2007. Africa is described by many historians as a passive continent. At least in the last millennium, the continent has been at the receiving end of history.


While it has benefitted from the values of other civilizations, it has suffered immensely from their atrocities. Slave trade was the most horrendous to remember, when Romans, Arabs and, later, Europeans in collaboration with African leaders freely depleted the continent of millions of its most able manpower. No compensation is contemplated. Then colonialism depleted it of its resources, after subduing any resistance from its sons, sometimes using the most gruesome means. Neocolonialism, and now globalization, continued with our subjugation to the West through multinational companies and surrogate political regimes. AIDS, another product of the West, has so far killed millions and even according to the revised estimate of infected persons released last week, Africa accounts for 68% of the 33 million infected persons and 75% of the dead. There sits our mother continent, immersed in its agony and watching helplessly.

The next disaster awaiting the continent would come as a result of global warming, another product of the West. There is a consensus that the continent will be one of the worst hit. In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that “Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability, a situation aggravated by the interaction of ‘multiple stresses’, occurring at various levels, and low adaptive capacity.” Scientists are forecasting a doom of acute food and water shortages, war, floods, etc. The most pathetic thing is both people and governments of Africa are neither prepared for it nor are do they possess the adaptive capacity to endure the situation. “African farmers have developed several adaptation options to cope with current climate variability, but such adaptations may not be sufficient for future changes of climate”, the IPCC report said.  Over 75% of Africans live on subsistence farming, something that will be impossible in most part of the continent when temperature rise reaches 20C by 2050. The IPCC envisages an increase of 5.8oC by 2100, during the lifetime of our immediate grandchildren. It is important that we make a survey of the impact before anything else.

In its May 10, 2007, The Economist summarized the latest IPCC regional report, saying, “The IPCC's most recent regional report certainly raises the spectre of rising mortality, wrote the economist. It predicts a minimum 2.5°C increase in temperature in Africa by 2030; drylands bordering the deserts may get drier, wetlands bordering the rainforests may get wetter (see map). The panel suggests the supply of food in Africa will be “severely compromised” by climate change, with crop yields in danger of collapsing in some countries.

“In the dry lands, water may become a critical issue. Soaring temperatures and erratic rainfall may dry up surface water. Between 75m and 250m Africans, out of the 800m or so now living in sub-Saharan Africa, may be short of water. The soil will hold less moisture, bore-holes will become contaminated, and women and girls will have to walk ever greater distances to fetch water. Vegetative cover will recede. The IPCC guesses that 600,000 square kilometres (232,000 square miles) of cultivable land may be ruined.

“Warming may also hurt animal habitats and biodiversity. More algae in freshwater lakes will hit fishing. The glaciers of Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains of Tanzania's Kilimanjaro and of Kenya's eponymous mountain may disappear; only seven of the 18 glaciers recorded on Mount Kenya in 1900 still remain. At the same time, a likely rise in sea levels may threaten the coastal infrastructure of northern Egypt, the Gambia, the Gulf of Guinea and Senegal.

“There are two caveats to this gloomy scenario. The first is that some parts of Africa may benefit from climate change. Increased rainfall in highland areas in eastern Africa could, for example, be beneficial. Second, though climate-change models have improved, they have been unreliable in Africa. The broad outline is plain but the detail is guesswork.”

Let us not fold our arms and think that the danger is farfetched. It is right here. A conglomeration of six environmental groups made the following report: Cairo recorded its warmest August (41oC) in 1998; in South Africa, the warmest and driest decade in recorded history was between 1985 and 1995; in Senegal there is a sea level rise at Rufisque; the Lewis Glaciers on Mount Kenya has already melted by 92%; the ice on mount Kilimanjaro is projected to disappear by 2020 – 82% has disappeared already, of which one third disappeared in just the last 12 years; in Uganda, glaciers have decreased by 75% in just the last 15 years.

Rains seem to be our main concern in Nigeria and the news is not encouraging at all. Readers will recall that in Food Shortage Ahead, we discussed the problem of reduced rainfall experienced this year in many parts of Northern Nigeria. Scientists are linking such observations with global warming. The National Geographic of March 3, 2006 reported that “less rains will fall annually in parts of Africa within 50 years due to global warming.” There will be a 10 – 20% drop in northwestern and southern Africa according to experts, reported National Geographic. A 10% drop, the report said, “will leave Botswana with only 23% of its present rainfall; with 20% (drop), Botswana will completely dry up.”

Our main concern in Nigeria is what effect reduced rainfall would have on our food security. According to the map published by the Economists (inset) all states in the arid and semi-arid North will be drastically affected, in addition to our neighbour, Niger. The states are Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina, Kano, Jigawa, Bauchi, Gombe, Yobe and Borno. These states are almost exclusive areas for the production of millet, guinea corn, cotton, groundnut, vegetables and beef. Within three years, they have experienced drought in twice. Though in that article we placed our hope in the assumption that it droughts are part of a cyclic phenomenon, we can no longer close our eyes to the possibility that global warming may be involved especially if the frequency of droughts continue to rise. If the rains in these states continue drop, not only will food become unaffordable, the level of poverty which is already reported by the Central Bank of Nigeria to be 75% (in some places 95%) will further deteriorate, thereby precipitating social crisis that can only be imagined. In addition, Lake Chad is counted among the African lakes that will dry up drastically, reducing irrigation farming and fishing in the Chad Basin.

Poverty on its part will bring about other problems. Health will be the first to queue up behind hunger. The vulnerability of African nations to diseases like malaria, meningitis, cholera and even AIDS, will increase, according to the IPCC report. Then conflicts will ensue resulting from sharing scarce resources (especially water) and population shift from the most northern states southward into the middle and southern states. The demography of Nigeria will never be the same. And so on.

We better brace up. As at now, our preparation is nil. Simple. The Economist of May 10, 2007, gave this apt summary of the situation. “Few African leaders have grasped the scale of the challenge posed by climate change. Most oil-producers have squandered their bonanza. Nigeria has failed to plan for how to stem the dreadful pollution in its oil-producing Delta region or to prevent desertification tearing at the fabric of its dry Muslim north. South Africa is only just beginning to own up to its coal addiction. Uganda's Mr Museveni is fighting off a rare insurrection from his supporters against plans to turn a piece of Ugandan rainforest over to farming. The World Meteorological Organisation says that weather-data collection in Africa has recently got worse, just as the need for accurate figures has grown; many of the automatic weather stations it helped set up have fallen into disrepair. The African Union has done little to sound the climate-change alarm.” In fact, “at a recent African Union summit,” said The Economist, “Uganda's combustible president, Yoweri Museveni, declared climate change an act of aggression by the rich world against the poor one—and demanded compensation.” The magazine agreed: “The contrast,” it honestly noted, “between poverty in Africa and carbon gluttony elsewhere is sharp. Why should the poorest die for the continued excesses of the richest?”

We must note that the continent can do very little to stop carbon emissions from rich industrialized countries. On the contrary, many African countries would wish to join the league of the culprits. President Yar’adua is working hard to see that this country is among the industrialized nations of the world by 2020. So we are working towards aggravating the situation than alleviating it. Do you blame Yar’Adua? Even the Kyoto agreement has foreseen the inevitability that “the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.”

  Right now we are not a substantial part of the cause (except through deforestation), so we can hardly be part of the solution. A survey covering the last two hundred years published in Wikipedia indicated that by 2000 Africa produced only 200million metric tons (mt) of carbon annually, compared with 400mt each for Middle East and Central & South America; 700mt for Australia, Japan and Pacific states; 800mt for Eastern Europe and former Soviet States; 820mt for Communist East Asia; 900mt for Western Europe; and 1,620mt for United States and Canada. Seeing these figures, I concluded that our case is hopeless. The bad news is that the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Agreement, which itself is a mediocre attempt in the face of the threat since by 2015, it is hoping to reduce emissions by 5% only from its 1990 levels. China, India and Brazil, the emerging industrial giants, are not ready to decelerate their carbon emissions either.

If we cannot stop it, can we mitigate its effect? Causes of greenhouse emissions in Africa like deforestation and bush burning could be stopped were the continent blessed with competent leaders. But what can Africa it do with the most incompetent of its sons are at the helm of its affairs? These guys believe in war, theft and gluttony only, amidst the pervasive poverty that is precipitated by bad governance, corruption, illiteracy, communal conflicts, etc. In place of what would the common African give up his firewood and coal then?

If we were blessed with good leaders they could have for decades now tried to stop desert encroachment. In the face of global warming, they would set up panels to monitor our climate and come up with mitigating solutions that would reduce the severity of the foreseen catastrophe. But… but…                       

Candidly, I have never written an article with a hopeless conclusion like this. Mother Africa will remain in its characteristic agony, watching the disaster approach by the day. What a passive continent!

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