Africa braces for the fallout of global warming

Posted: 17 March 2004

Author: Emmanuel Koro

Africa is expected to be one of the continents hardest hit by global warming. New reports find that key ecosystems in Southern Africa are already facing hotter, drier weather, as Emmanuel Koro reports.

A number of African scientists are urging governments on the continent to take measures to prepare for the impacts of global warming. "Climate change is now with us and poised to change our pattern of life," said Dr Cecil Machena, a Zimbabwean ecologist and conservationist. "Yet few people know what climate change is all about."

Zimbabwe farmers. Photo: Emmanuel Koro
Zimbabwe farmers. Photo: Emmanuel Koro
Droughts in Zimbabwe require increasing reliance on groundwater for irrigation.© Emmanuel Koro

The vast majority of the greenhouse gases behind global warming have been released by industrial countries like the United States and Europe. Scientists expect, however, that climate disruptions will take their heaviest toll on poor nations, which have contributed relatively little to the problem in the past century.

"African countries are expected to be the hardest hit by climate change because they have the least resources to adapt," said Brett Orlando, a climate expert at the World Conservation Union (IUCN). "The difference between impacts on developing and industrialised countries is categorical. In industrialised countries one speaks of loss of property and income, whereas in developing countries one speaks of loss of life and livelihood."

More droughts

A recent report from scientists at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom concludes that current trends of droughts in Southern Africa are likely linked to climate change. "It is becoming increasing likely that [human-caused] emissions of greenhouse gases, and other atmospheric pollutants, are changing global and regional climates," finds the report.

While occasional droughts are common in the region, the scientists found that the last 20 years "have seen a trend towards reduced rainfall," as well as an increase in the number of serious droughts - two or three during the early 1990s alone. "The decade 1986-95, as well as being the warmest this century, has also been the driest," according to the report, Climate Change and Southern Africa.

The researchers recommend that Southern African countries should change their agricultural policies in anticipation of the negative impacts of climate change on crop yields. "The clearest objective at present is to prepare for changing climatic hazards by reducing vulnerability, by developing monitoring capabilities, and enhancing the responsiveness of the agricultural sector to forecasts of production and food crises," concludes the report.

Threat to livelihoods

However, few efforts are currently underway to address the anticipated impacts of climate change in Southern Africa. "Very few governments, particularly in the South, are prepared to mainstream climate change issues in development processes," said Dr Machena, who is director of the Africa Resources Trust.

And yet the impact of climate on the poor is a serious concern. "Rural people in less-developed countries are more dependent on local resources, so when land is degraded or access is cut off, those people are particularly hard hit," said Peter Veit, the World Resources Institute's regional director for Africa.

The Africa Resources Trust has called on Southern African governments to take steps now that will help people cope with hotter, drier weather, coastal storm surges, and other anticipated effects of climate change. Dr Machena has proposed that countries invest in drought-resistant crops and promote forestation projects around farmlands, which would protect watersheds and create belts of vegetation to link up national parks and other habitats threatened by climate change.

Biodiversity loss

A report recently published in the journal Nature concludes that if no action is taken to address global warming, climate shifts could soon surpass habitat loss and other threats to wildlife and plants. The study, which examined six biodiversity-rich regions around the world representing 20 per cent of the Earth's land area, projects that the consequences could be significant for Africa.

Important African conservation areas, such as Kruger National Park, could risk losing up to 60 percent of their species. More than one-third of the 300 plant species studied in South Africa are expected to die out, including the country's national flower, the king protea.

Using the current distributions of 1,103 plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, frogs, butterflies and other invertebrates, the scientists developed computer models to simulate the ways species' ranges are expected to move in response to changing temperatures and climatic conditions.

The study found that 15 to 37 per cent of species sampled could be threatened with extinction by 2050 as a result of their inability to adapt to changes in climate. "If the projections can be extrapolated globally, and to other groups of land animals and plants, our analyses suggest that well over a million species could be threatened with extinction as a result of climate change," said lead author Chris Thomas of the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. Emmanuel Koro is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe and a contributor to WRI Features.

Source: WRI Features (February 2004, Volume 2, Number 2), published by the World Resources Institute. Reproduced with kind permission.

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