'Climate change threatens more African famines'

Posted: 24 September 2002

Author Info: This article is based on a briefing document prepared by Friends of the Earth-UK for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. For the full report see: Climate Change, Crisis and Southern Africa.

The impending famine in southern Africa may only be the first of many over coming decades, as climate change makes itself felt, warns Friends of the Earth (FOE).

While poor harvests have left more than 14 million people in urgent need of food aid in Southern Africa, the British-based NGO says the problem could get worse as temperatures rise as a result of global warming.

It says man-made climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is likely to lead to increased droughts, floods and other extreme weather events in Africa .

FOE says past floods and recent drought,coupled with the controls imposed by international agencies, have led to the crop failures in the region. At the same time, civil strife and the effects of HIV/AIDS are limiting the capacity of affected countries to cope.

Land conflicts

The poorest people in the poorest countries will be worst affected, says FOE, while further liberalisation of trade rules could hinder northern countries' efforts to stop climate change and stop African countries adapting to it. The impacts of food shortages will be exacerbated by the situation on the ground, it adds. "In several parts of the area, more than 30 per cent of people aged 15-49 are infected with HIV/ AIDS. This increases their vulnerability to disease and reduces their ability to produce food. Land conflicts have undermined food production in Zimbabwe while civil war has wreaked havoc in Angola.

"Furthermore, local incomes in rural areas in the region have fallen as a result of market liberalisation forced on governments by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and World Trade Organisation."

Coastal flooding

But climate change could lead to repeated famines, it warns. "Across Africa, the average number of people affected by coastal flooding (as seas rise) could grow from one million in 1990 to, at worst, 70 million in 2080. However, within Southern Africa, this problem is most likely to affect communities in Mozambique. A more worrying problem for the region is that rainfall may become more episodic - with, in places, both an increased likelihood of drought and more intense storms."

Agriculture is one of the economic sectors thought to be most at risk from climate change, FOE points out. Agriculture is the "prevailing way of life" in sub-Saharan Africa's, generating one-third of the region's national income. On average, 70 per cent of the population are farmers and 40 per cent of all exports are agricultural products. The poor in sub-Saharan Africa already spend 60-80 per cent of their income on food - and food representsmore than half of all consumption in southern Africa, it says. .

"There is wide consensus that climate change, through increased extremes, will worsen food supply in Africa, though some models suggest higher carbon dioxide concentrations will also stimulate crop yields. Climate models suggest temperatures may rise in Africa by 0.2-0.5C per decade.

Central southern Africa is expected to suffer the highest increases. Modelling also suggests that the climate in southeast Africa will becomedryer.

In these circumstances, Friends of the Earth says it is essential that progress should be made in ratifying and strengthening the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, followed by other actions to control emissions and stimulate green forms of energy, abolish Africa's debt burden and carry through other long-term policies to secure food security in southern Africa.