'Africa must plan for climate change'

Posted: 26 September 2006

Author: Lori Pottinger

Africa already has extreme variability of rainfall, and an uneven distribution of water resources. Climate change is expected to increase this variability, with direct impact on river flows and rain-fed agriculture. New policies towards water use on the continent are urgently needed says Lori Pottinger.

Hungry goats in Sudan feed on a single acacia tree. Photo: FAO
Hungry goats in Sudan feed on a single acacia tree. Photo: FAO
Hungry goats in Sudan feed on a single acacia tree in the desert.© FAO
Africa has yet another huge burden to bear: it has been deemed 'the continent most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change' by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The problem is complicated by a mix of political, social, environmental and economic realities. But one thing is clear: a concerted international effort is urgently needed to ensure that Africa does not slip into climate-induced chaos because of the rich world's addiction to fossil fuels.

Without such help, a recent spate of international efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa will be even less likely to succeed.

'If carbon pollution is left unchecked, climate change will have a pervasive effect on life in Africa. It will threaten the people, animals and natural resources that make Africa unique,' said Paul Desanker, a Penn State professor from Malawi who focuses on climate change and adaptation in Africa.

Surface water

A 2005 report, Africa - Up in Smoke? by a group of UK-based aid and environmental groups, states, '[Africa's] high sensitivity to climate is exacerbated by other factors such as widespread poverty, recurrent droughts and floods, an immediate daily dependence on natural resources and biodiversity, a heavy disease burden, and the numerous conflicts that have engulfed the continent. There are further complications introduced by an unjust international trade system and the burden of unpayable debt.'

Africa already has extreme variability of rainfall, and an uneven distribution of water resources. Climate change is expected to increase this variability.

Woman collecting water, Tanzania. Photo: WaterAid/Jim Holmes
Woman collecting water, Tanzania. Photo: WaterAid/Jim Holmes
Woman collecting water, Tanzania© WaterAid/Jim Holmes
Most rural Africans are directly dependent on surface water - rivers, wetlands, springs and lakes - for their water supply. Experts predict that much of the continent is likely to get drier, and that surface water sources will be dramatically affected.

A recent study by climate experts at the University of Cape Town reveals that even a small decrease in rainfall on the continent could cause a drastic reduction in river flows. The study predicts that a decrease in water availability could occur across about 25 per cent of the continent. For example, a 10 per cent reduction in rain over the Johannesburg area could lead to a 70 per cent drop in the Orange River's levels. A similar situation could hit Botswana, while in parts of northern Africa, river water levels would drop more than 50 per cent.

'It's like erasing large sections of the rivers from the map,' said Maarten de Wit, who headed up the study.

Malaria risk

Currently, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 14 African nations are considered water stressed or water scarce, and an estimated 11 countries will join them in the next 25 years. Under such conditions, free-flowing, healthy rivers will become an even more valued resource than they are today.

Young malaria patient near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO
Young malaria patient near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO
Young malaria patient near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia.© WHO
In some parts of Africa, increasing rain and run-off will lead to worsening floods and increases in water-borne diseases. For example, South Africa's Environmental Affairs Minister estimates that the number of South Africans at high malaria risk could quadruple by 2020.

If not addressed, climate change is expected to place up to 120 million people at risk of hunger, of which 70-80 per cent will be in Africa. About one in seven Africans depends on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods and food. Africa has a huge [and growing*] population of poor farmers who are already vulnerable to flooding, soil erosion, drought, and crop failure. Predicted increases in weather extremes will only worsen their poverty and suffering.

A changing climate will not only affect the fundamental ability of Africa's rural majority to feed themselves and their livestock, but could undermine most development efforts now underway or being proposed for Africa. Less reliable water sources will hamper expansion of irrigated agriculture and hydropower (and the effectiveness of existing dams), the ability to meet the Millennium Development Goals and other poverty-alleviation efforts, the success of efforts to calm conflicts (especially as they relate to control over natural resources), and so on.

The costs of adaptive strategies will cut into governments' budgets for health, education, and other basic services. In the long run, no human endeavour will be untouched.

Avoiding disaster

The most important step for adapting to climate change is, of course, out of Africa's hands: rich nations must do more to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Still, there is much that African governments can do to reduce vulnerability to climate change. International aid and technical support will be critical to avoid a human and ecological disaster across the continent.

Climate-change adaptation plans must focus on three key principles: increasing the climate resilience of the poor, prioritising flexible, cost-effective approaches, and mitigating environmental harm. Taking an ecosystem approach to adaptation will ensure that the natural resources upon which most of the world's poor depend will be used in a sustainable manner.

Improved governance and increased transparency will be key to good decision-making. 'For climate change adaptation to be effective, empowering civil society to participate in the assessment process, including identifying and implementing adaptation activities, is especially important,' according to Poverty and Climate Change, a recent report by major international financial institutions.

Adopting 'no regrets' measures - strategies that move Africa toward sustainable development goals whether or not climate change proves as destructive as is predicted - would lead to improvements in water management and poverty reduction as well as reduced vulnerability to climate change.

Adaptation plans for Africa will need to greatly increase support for small-scale farmers. Two-thirds of Africans live in rural areas, struggling to make a living from a difficult landscape. Small-scale projects such as rainwater harvesting structures, affordable drip irrigation and pump technologies, and water-saving farming techniques will be critical for helping them adapt to a changing climate.

Such measures can also reduce poverty more effectively and at lower cost than the conventional approach: for every US$1 billion spent on large dams, five million small farming families could be lifted out of poverty.

Energy supply

Much of Africa's energy supply is already being set back because of climate change. Outside of coal-based South Africa, most sub-Saharan African nations are dangerously over-dependent on hydropower for their grid-based electricity, and many have already suffered drought-induced energy shortfalls. A drier Africa could also see shrinking forest reserves, and a reduction in fuelwood for cooking (which now accounts for the majority of Africans' energy use).

Diversifying away from over-dependence on hydropower is key to increasing the resilience of African economies to climate change. Climate change models predict major declines in the flows of several major African rivers - which would of course translate into major declines in hydro production.

The economic impacts of hydro-vulnerability will be felt both in the costs of power cuts upon industrial output, and the cost of wasted investments in non-performing dams. Gareth Harrison and Bert Whittington of the University of Edinburgh have studied the potential impact of climate change upon the proposed Batoka Gorge hydro project on the Zambezi.

They found that a reduction in flow levels over Victoria Falls of 35 per cent would cut annual power production by 21 per cent and dry-season production by 32 per cent (the drop in generation is less than the drop in streamflow because, unlike most hydro plants, Batoka Gorge would spill a large amount of the water entering its reservoir if river flows were to continue as in the past). Harrison and Whittington calculate that such a drop in output would render the Batoka Gorge scheme uneconomic (in other words, it would have an internal rate of return well under the normal investment benchmark of 10 per cent).

Large dams could also be vulnerable to failure in the event of the unprecedented floods expected in the greenhouse world. The current push to build more large dams in Africa will only exacerbate this vulnerability, and further harm river-supported ecosystems and communities downstream of dams.

Dam developments

Like water security, energy development for Africa in a changing climate will require a greater emphasis on small-scale, decentralised supply, and diversity in the type of supply. Not only will hydro-dependency be a problem in a warming world, but renewable technologies such as solar and wind could be affected by climate change as well. The more diverse the energy mix, the less risk from climate change.

A 2005 report by UNDP, Scaling Up Modern Energy Services in East Africa to Alleviate Poverty and Meet The Millennium Development Goals, emphasises 'a focus on energy options that are easy to implement, involving local capacity and low operational costs'. The UNDP report identified a number of technologies that match the high impact, low cost, scaleable profile, including modern biomass, improved cook stoves in combination with smoke hoods; liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), and mini-hydro. This kind of 'no regrets' energy planning fits in well with plans for helping all of Africa adapt to climate change.

The World Bank, however, has proposed more dams for Africa, linked with electricity grids across basins, which it says will reduce regional energy risks. 'Africa has an extremely volatile climate and it needs reliable power,' said David Grey, the World Bank's senior water adviser for Africa. Another senior member of the Bank's Africa energy group concurs, stating: 'We need to look at hedging the risk of one river basin with another' - giving the example of building dams on multiple rivers in East Africa, where drought has cut into hydropower output in recent years.

Under the Nile Basin Initiative, for example, the Bank is encouraging a massive rise in hydropower. Not only does this approach have huge costs (grid expansion and large dams are both costly) and does nothing to meet the needs of the poor, it also ignores the fact that most droughts are broadly regional, and are apt to affect multiple river basins at once. Still, many African governments are buying into this argument, lured by high-profile proposals by the World Bank and dam developers.

In an uncertain world, this much is indisputable: Africa's rivers will become ever more valued yet ever more stressed in coming years. How the rich world chooses to help Africa adapt to a changing climate, and the consequences of that assistance on Africa's natural support systems, could mean the difference between an Africa that is finally able to realise its potential, or one that continues to languish despite large amounts of aid and good intentions.

Choosing 'no regrets' measures that protect natural resources upon which Africa's majority depend - rather than relying on grand plans for multiple dams to 'hedge' against climate change - will result in less vulnerability and less risk for the rural poor, who are most at risk of climate change. It is the best way to help preserve the continent's rivers, forests and other natural systems upon which most Africans depend. Such an approach is critical if we are to avoid a devastating 'perfect storm' climate crisis across the world's largest continent.

Source: Third World Network Features

Lori Pottinger is the Editor of World Rivers Review in which this article first appeared (August 2006 issue).

The report 'Africa - up in smoke' may be seen in full here

*The UN projects that Africa's rural population will grow from around 500 million in 2000 to 700 million in 2030 - Ed.