The Climate Emergency

By Newton Vusa Sibanda October 07, 2020

With extreme weather events like floods and droughts already having a disastrous impact on people’s lives across a continent that has become a climate change hotspot, countries must take urgent steps to reduce their vulnerability, writes Newton Vusa Sibanda

CLIMATE CHANGE has rightly been described as the defining issue of the moment. Across the globe, its effects are telling.

Largely caused by human activities, it presents a serious threat to nature and people, now and in the future. Without ambitious mitigation efforts, global temperature increases this century could exceed 4°C  above pre-industrial levels, with catastrophic results. In the wake of the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid in December, experts warn of more devastating effects of climate change unless drastic measures are taken to address it.

Most recently, they issued an alert that the number of people at risk of being forced from their homes by flooding could surge to as many as 50 million a year by the end of the century if governments failed to intervene. That would be five times the average of 10 million displaced each year from the mid-1970s to 2005, and would occur as a result of greater rainfall, ice caps melting and population increases, according to a study by Justin Ginnetti. This would be due to a combination of the effects of climate change and expanding populations, says Ginneti,  head of data and analysis for the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. As flooding currently accounts for more than half of climate-related displacement, the outlook was "grim”, he said.

The numbers pushed out of their homes by river flooding could be kept to 20 million a year if governments stepped up efforts to keep a rise in temperatures to a globally agreed lower limit of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, he added. "Climate displacement poses a huge global challenge," Ginnetti said in a statement at the 25th UN Climate Conference (COP 25) in Madrid. Earlier, aid agency Oxfam reported that wilder weather and fiercer wildfires had driven several millions from their homes in the last decade, and the problem would worsen unless leaders acted swiftly.

But Africa is particularly vulnerable. Despite the fact that it has contributed the least to man-made factors causing climate change like greenhouse gas emissions, it is the worst hit and lacks capacity to cope with the effects. Right now, the effects of climate change are already being felt by people across Africa. Evidence shows that the change in temperature has brought about a cycle of floods and drought, and consequent food insecurity, damage to public infrastructure and forced migration.

According to the Climate Vulnerability Index for 2015, seven of the 10 countries most at risk from climate change globally are in Africa, while the continent as a whole has a higher mortality rate from droughts than anywhere else, particularly in the Sahel, Southern Africa and parts of Central Africa. Recent flooding and landslides in East Africa have killed dozens of people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Both weather events have been linked to higher-than-usual temperature differences between the two sides of the Indian Ocean – something meteorologists refer to as the Indian Ocean Dipole.  The phenomenon–  also dubbed the ‘Indian Niño’ because of its similarity to its Pacific equivalent – refers to the difference in sea-surface temperatures in opposite parts of the Indian Ocean. Temperatures in the eastern part of the ocean oscillate between warm and cold compared with the western part, cycling through phases referred to as ‘positive’, ‘neutral’ and ‘negative’.

‘Recent flooding and landslides in East Africa have killed dozens of people and displaced hundreds of thousands’

The dipole’s positive phase this year – the strongest for six decades – means warmer sea temperatures in the western Indian Ocean region, with the opposite in the east. The result has been higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in southeast Asia and Australia. “When an Indian Ocean dipole event occurs, the rainfall tends to move with the warm waters, so you get more rainfall than normal over East African countries,” Andrew Turner, a lecturer in monsoon systems at the UK’s University of Reading, told the BBC. “On the other hand, in the east of the Indian Ocean, sea surface temperatures will be colder than normal and that place will get a reduced amount of rainfall.”

A negative dipole phase would bring about the opposite conditions – warmer water and greater precipitation in the eastern Indian Ocean, and cooler and drier conditions in the west. A neutral phase would mean sea temperatures were close to average across the Indian Ocean.

Downpours have devastated parts of East Africa over the last two months, with the Horn of Africa seeing up to 300 percent above average rainfall between October and mid- November, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and South Sudan have been particularly badly affected, with flash floods and landslides hitting communities across the region. Almost 300 people have reportedly died and 2.8 million have been affected overall , according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network predicts  further flooding in Kenya and the Lake Victoria basin as well as parts of Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Kenya's Meteorological Department said in November the heavy rain could continue into the New Year. Extreme climate and weather events caused by the dipole are expected to become more common in the future as greenhouse gas emissions increase. In a 2014 study published in the journal Nature, scientists in Australia, India, China and Japan modelled the effects of Co2 on extreme Indian Ocean dipoles, such as those in 1961, 1994 and 1997.

Assuming emissions continue to go up, they projected that the frequency of extreme positive dipole events would increase this century from one every 17.3 years to one every 6.3 years. "The countries in the west of the Indian Ocean, those on the African coast, are going to see much, much more flooding and heavy rainfall relating to these events," said Turner. "You're going to get more damaging impacts on crops and on infrastructure and flooding.”

In Southern Africa, flooding in the early part of 2019 left a trail of destruction. Cyclone Idai saw families in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe facing devastation, and hundreds of thousands of children across the three countries in need of urgent assistance. Six weeks later in April, Cyclone Kenneth made landfall in Mozambique, bringing powerful winds and heavy rains, its devastation portrayed in the photograph that went viral of a young woman who gave birth in a mango tree while escaping the deluge.

Cyclones Idai and Kenneth displaced tens of thousands of families, leaving many in need of basic supplies like food and water. The two storms brought widespread flooding and the destruction of almost 780,000 hectares of agriculture crops. Nearly one million people, including 160,000 children under five, continue to face food shortages in northern Mozambique, with conditions expected to worsen over the coming months. 

“The impact of two cyclones hitting Mozambique in one season was devastating and unprecedented, however, it is only now that the residual effects of the disaster are really beginning to be felt,” said James McQuen-Patterson,  Unicef’s head of health and nutrition in Mozambique.  “Reaching malnourished children in greatest need is complex. We will only succeed with a coordinated response across partners to ensure cyclone-affected families do not fall into further distress.”

In South Africa, the epic level of the impact of floods cannot be over emphasised. Adding to national power utility Eskom’s woes is the loss of 150 MW of power from the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric generation station, amid the ruin caused by Cyclone Idai. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa cancelled a trip to Egypt to address the energy crisis that has hit the country, characterised by long hours of load shedding.

Zambia has also been hard hit. Hydro power currently accounts for more than 80 percent of the country’s energy production, mainly from reservoirs of two main hydropower stations, the Kariba and Itezhi-Tezhi dams. Zambia possesses an estimated 40 percent of the water resources in the Southern African Development Community and about 6,000 MW of unexploited hydro power potential. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC’s) latest report (October 2018) recommends limiting global warming to 1.5ºC. But this would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society, it points out. 

‘By 2020, between 75 and 250 million Africans are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change’

This raises the question of whether hydro power is still the best option for energy generation in Southern Africa. The 2015/16 drought in Zambia saw its generational capacity decrease by around 1,000 MW, according to Francis Yamba, an expert on energy and environment.As a result, the government began  diversifying  energy sources and managed to reduce  dependence on hydro power from 99 percent to 80 percent. The country now has 300 MW and 100 MW of thermal energy from coal and heavy fuel oil  respectively.

But energy expert Johnstone Chikwanda, who is also chair of Energy Forum Zambia, feels much more needs to be done. “This is why President Lungu has attached significant political will to ensure that our energy mix is diversified further by incorporating  other forms of energy such as solar,” he said.  “Through the Industrial Development Corporation, 100 MW of solar power plant is being built. We have learnt bitter lessons due to climate variability.” 

Chikwanda noted that climate change has affected the hydrology in the southern circuit of Zambia where major power plants are located, but that the northern region of the country still possesses significant potential for hydro-power as it receives good rainfall due to proximity to the River Congo.  “In this case, plans are underway to geographically diversify hydro-electric generation,” he explained. Yamba agrees.  “Future energy supply needs to be diversified to reduce heavy dependence on hydro power by increasing primary energy supply options that include solar, wind and biomass,” he said. “The future lies in focusing on coal and biomass to ensure we have a flexible energy mix.” 

Hartley Walimwipi is project manager for the UN Development Programme-funded Nationally Determined Contributions project under the ministry of lands, environment and natural resources that is preparing the country’s national communication to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “It is not just drought but also temperature rise affects evapo-transpiration on catchment areas as well as large reservoirs like Kariba dam,” he said. “Floods are also a risk as they can destroy infrastructure for power generation.”   Therefore governments had to seek alternatives that didn’t push greenhouse gas  emissions up.

Mbita Chitala, who sits on the board of the state-owned Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (Zesco), confirmed that the current water deficit in the Kariba dam has had an adverse impact on  the utility company’s generation capacity.

Climate change in Zambia, which has also brought about changes in the growing season, has hit agriculture in its southern region, once regarded as the country’s bread basket. The decimation of the cattle population due to drought has been disastrous for the area’s largely pastoralist communities and people are migrating to the northern parts of the country, where rainfall is more reliable. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, drought has also had a devastating effect on many sectors of the economy, hitting the poorest hard. In September and October, Matabeleland North reported losses of nearly 2,600 cattle as drought dried  up water supplies and pastures, according the province's department of veterinary services. In the previous year, 766 cattle were lost over the same period. In West Africa, the situation is not any better. When coastal villagers in Senegal are forced to move inland because of erosion and rising tides they can no longer earn a living from fishing. Meanwhile, livestock herders from Mauritania and Mali are moving across Senegal's northern border to seek grazing as droughts bite, sparking tensions with Senegalese farmers and other residents.   The impact on weather patterns due to climate change is two-fold; flooding and drought. According to the African Water Development Report , flooding is the most prevalent disaster in North Africa, the second most common in East, South and Central Africa, and the third most common in West Africa. In North Africa, the 2001 floods in northern Algeria resulted in about 800 deaths and economic losses amounting to $400m. In Mozambique, the 2000 flood,   worsened by two cyclones, caused 800 deaths and affected almost two million people of whom about one million needed food aid. Around 329,000 people were displaced and agricultural land was destroyed. Between July 2011 and mid-2012, a severe drought affected the entire East Africa region and was said to be the worst drought in 60 years.

Water, water everywhere: Entire economies suffer when the water levels of Africa’s huge rivers drop. Ghana, for example, has become totally reliant on the hydro-electric output of the Akosombo Dam on the River Volta. Mali is dependent on the River Niger for food, water and transport. However, great stretches of the river are now facing environmental devastation as a result of pollution. In Nigeria, half the population has no access to clean water.

According to the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  report, the gradual yet dramatic disappearance of the glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is as a result of climate change. The glaciers act as a water tower and several rivers are now drying up. The report estimates that 82 percent of the ice that capped the mountain when it was first recorded in 1912 is now gone.

Empty bread baskets: Across Africa, the landscape is changing. Droughts, heat stress and flooding have led to a reduction in crop yields and livestock productivity.

East Africa is facing the worst food crisis so far this century. According to Oxfam, 12 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in dire need of food. Rainfall has been below average with 2010/2011 being the driest year since 1950/1951, a serious problem for a region almost entirely dependent on rain for its agriculture.

In declining health: Climate-sensitive diseases and conditions can be high in poor countries that have minimal resources to deal with them. These include heat stress linked to sustained increases in temperature as well as breathing problems and chronic respiratory illnesses due to the reduction in air quality that often accompanies a heat wave.

Low crop yields due to climate change have increased malnutrition. One in four people is classified as being undernourished in Africa south of the Sahara, contributing greatly to  endemic poverty and social tensions.   The spread of malaria may increase in areas projected to receive more precipitation and flooding. Increases in rainfall and temperature can cause spreading of dengue fever

Lack of shelter: Severe flooding and intense droughts has led to the destruction of many homes and entire villages across Africa. Conflicts over resources exacerbate the problem and in turn, contribute to the ongoing migration within Africa.

Extreme events displace large amounts of people, especially those who are unable to respond and rebuild after disasters, due to lack of resources. Women and children first: Women, children and the elderly are more vulnerable to climate change across Africa. Women as main caregivers are expected to take on additional burdens arising from climate change, often walking hours, even days, to fetch scarce water.  

 Malnourished children and the elderly are more susceptible to infectious diseases and conditions like malaria and diarrhoea, while their limited mobility and age makes them vulnerable in emergency situations. 

State of insecurity: Climate change has  the potential to exacerbate national security issues and increase the number of international conflicts. Conflicts often occur over the use of already limited natural resources, fertile lands and water. 

The UN predicts that access to water may be the single biggest cause of conflict and war in Africa in the next 25 years. These are most likely to be in countries where rivers or lakes are shared by more than one country. The changes in precipitation and temperature are already affecting crop yields in equatorial Africa. This has resulted in food shortages, that have triggered cross-border migration,  intraregional and communal conflict,  in Nigeria for example.

Ecosystems in danger: Climate change has already led to changes in freshwater and marine ecosystems in East and Southern Africa, and terrestrial ecosystems in Southern and West Africa. Extreme weather events have demonstrated the vulnerability of some of South Africa’s ecosystems. Back in 2014, an IPCC report was noting that migration patterns, geographic range and seasonal activity of many terrestrial and marine species were shifting.

As a matter of emphasis, the UN environment agency Unep warns that no continent will be struck as severely by the impact of climate change as Africa. Given its geographical position, the continent will be particularly vulnerable due to its limited adaptive capacity, and exacerbated by widespread poverty. The agency also notes that climate change is a particular threat to continued economic growth and to livelihoods of vulnerable populations.

By 2020, between 75 and 250 million Africans are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. In the same year, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent in some countries. Global warming of 2˚C would put more than half of the continent's population at risk of undernourishment. Projections estimate that climate change will lead to an equivalent of 2 percent to 4 percent annual loss in GDP in the region by 2040. 

Assuming international efforts keep global warming below 2°C, the continent could face climate change adaptation costs of $50bn a year by 2050. Unep’s goal is twofold: to help African countries reduce their vulnerability to climate change by building resilience through ecosystem based adaptation; and to promote the development of renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency.

“Limiting warming to 1.5° C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” warns Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group III. But IPCC, the world’s foremost authority for assessing the science of climate change, says it is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5° C – if, and only if, there are “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities”. 

For Africa south of the Sahara, which has experienced more frequent and more intense climate extremes over the past decades, the ramifications of the world’s warming by more than 1.5° C would be profound. Temperature increases in the region are projected to be higher than the global mean temperature increase; regions in Africa within 15 degrees of the equator are projected to experience an increase in hot nights as well as longer and more frequent heat waves. The odds are long but not impossible, says the IPCC. And the benefits of limiting climate change to 1.5° C are enormous, with the report detailing the difference in the consequences between a 1.5° C increase and a 2° C increase.

Every bit of additional warming adds greater risks for Africa in the form of greater droughts, more heat waves and more potential crop failures. Recognising the increasing threat of climate change, many countries came together in 2015 to adopt the historic Paris Agreement, committing themselves to limiting climate change to well below 2° C. Some 184 countries have formally joined the agreement, including almost every African nation, with only Angola, Eritrea and South Sudan yet to join. The agreement entered into force in November 2016. According to the IPCC, projections show that the western Sahel region will experience the strongest drying, with a significant increase in the maximum length of dry spells.

The IPCC expects Central Africa to see a decrease in the length of wet spells and a slight increase in heavy rainfall. West Africa has been identified as a climate-change hotspot, with climate change likely to lessen crop yields and production, with resultant impacts on food security. Southern Africa will also be affected. The western part of Southern Africa is set to become drier, with increasing drought frequency and number of heat waves toward the end of the 21st century. A warming world will have implications for precipitation. At 1.5° C, less rain would fall over the Limpopo basin and areas of the Zambezi basin in Zambia, as well as parts of Western Cape in South Africa.