Climate change spells doom for Africa

More than 200 delegates attended the ‘Development and Adaptation Days’ meetings, which took place at the sidelines of a major United Nations conference on climate change.

The meetings were organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and its partners: the Stockholm Environment Institute; the International Institute for Sustainable Development; the African Centre for Technology Studies; and the RING alliance of policy research organisations.

“Climate change threatens to derail efforts to reduce poverty in the developing world,” says Saleemul Huq, head of IIED’s climate change group. But such efforts could also be used to help the world’s poor face and adapt to the threat of climate change. It is essential to act now to prevent catastrophic impacts, rather than carry on with business as usual and face terrible consequences later.”

Delegates heard presentations on the risks climate change could bring, and the capacity of communities to adapt to them, in Algeria, India, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Tajikistan, Zambia and Zimbabwe, among others.

Studies in sub-Saharan Africa have predicted, for example, that areas suitable for growing important crops could shrink drastically as the climate gets warmer and drier.

Tharsis Hyera, programme manager at Environmental Protection and Management Services in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania told delegates that a wide zone in the middle of the country could degenerate to the point of being unsuitable for growing maize. “The anticipated shift would leave only the highlands in the southern and northern fringes of Tanzania suitable,” he says.

Agriculture is not the only problem. Nearly every sector of a country’s economy is sensitive to climate change and will need to adapt to future conditions. Fiji, which faces rising sea levels, has identified water-associated health risks (such as diarrhoea and insect-borne diseases) as the priority health issue linked to climate change.

Other presentation topics included water management in India and Peru; clean energy in Bangladesh and Nigeria; applying climate forecasts to policymaking; Cape Town’s city-scale plan for adapting to climate change; transferring adaptation technologies to rural communities; and climate change and livestock in Burkina Faso.

During the conference it was also determined that Namibia is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. Anticipated climate change impacts include droughts, sea-water inundation of ports, reduced food security and sweeping changes to the composition of living natural resources.

“Climate change is one of the most serious threats to Namibia’s environment, human health and well-being as well as its economic development.

The arid environment, recurrent drought and desertification have contributed to make Namibia one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change.

Considering the natural resource based economy and limited technical and financial resources,

climate change could potentially become one of the most significant and costly issues that affect the national development process in Namibia, ” says a recent study by the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

Many African countries are heavily dependent on climate-sensitive sectors. In Namibia over 30% of GDP relies on primary sectors, i.e. natural resource-based production like agriculture, fisheries and mining.

Compounding this are concerns over food scarcity, inequitable land distribution and heavy dependence on rain-fed subsistence agriculture.

Namibia is a vulnerable water-stressed country that needs to manage its domestic adaptation to climate change; and Namibian delegates wish to help international efforts to move voluntarily towards a collective goal of reduced carbon emissions.

According the report by the International Institute of Environment and Development , the key impacts for Namibia are forecast to be higher temperatures (2-7’C by 2100), less rainfall (by 30-200mm) leading to shorter growing seasons, a sea level rise (30-100 cm by 2100) and extreme localised weather events, which will affect biodiversity more than gradual global or regional changes.

Species can only reproduce, grow and survive within specific ranges of climatic and environmental conditions. Climate change means plants and animals must either adapt or migrate.

By 2085, over 60% of all key species’ ranges in Africa will have shrunk, with one-quarter losing all their climatically suitable area. In Namibia, over 30% of threatened plant species will become critically endangered or extinct by 2080.

Namibia’s endemic species are well-adapted to the arid conditions and will become less threatened as their potential range expands.

Yet in-migration of new species will be a new risk.

Shifts in the timing of seasonal events are expected – altered reproductive cycles, lengths of growing seasons.

Species interaction or interactions between organisms and their abiotic environment (which are fundamental to functioning ecosystems) will change but the impact of this remains largely unknown. Key

likely changes are in competitive ability and mismatches in timing between interdependent species, affecting factors such as pollination.

Predictions of mass extinction scenarios exist, but the chief new threat is from changed migration patterns through a landscape that is increasingly impassable due to the widespread loss and fragmentation of habitats.

For example, marine fisheries rely on the nutrient-rich upwellings of the cold Benguela current on Namibia’s west coast, and are threatened by possible changes in the frequency and timing of current.

Over the last decade, a trend of warmer sea surface temperatures has been noted over the northern Benguela region and there is concern that the warming trend might be one of several environmental factors that have contributed to declining fish stocks in recent years.

Projected changes in climate followed by droughts and shortage of clean water for drinking and washing might increase the number of deaths of children caused by malnutrition, malaria and acute respiratory infections.

CC will hit the poorest hardest. If, as some models predict, the climate of Namibia becomes hotter, drier and more variable in the future, marginalized rural populations and the urban poor will be most severely affected. Although the average population density in Namibia is very low, population pressure is considerable in the north-central and north-eastern regions.

Currently, higher average rainfall in these areas than elsewhere in the country makes it possible to survive from subsistence agriculture, but poverty is already widespread and these people are therefore particularly vulnerable to changes in precipitation rates.

Namibia has many pressing development challenges and struggles to provide for its population with current levels of environmental degradation. Future more intensive environmental impacts would damage the country further. Yet some current investments in adaptation will curtail future CC costs.

Compounding this are concerns over food scarcity, inequitable land distribution and heavy dependence on rain-fed subsistence agriculture. Namibia is a vulnerable water-stressed country that needs to manage its domestic adaptation to climate change; and Namibian delegates wish to help international efforts to move voluntarily towards a collective goal of reduced carbon emissions.

The IIED study concludes that CC is likely to exacerbate the dry conditions already experienced in southern Africa.

And when rainfall does come, it will be in bursts of greater intensity leading to erosion and flood damage. Poverty implications for rural communities will be acute.

But these predictions gain little policy traction for change in southern African countries.

December 2006
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