Urbanisation: People in West Africa are moving to cities like Nigeria’s Lagos because of push factors such as violence as well as extreme weather that harms agriculture. Photo: Adeyinka Yusuf/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
From Dakar to Freetown, Abidjan, Accra and Lagos, West African cities are locked into a difficult future because of the continued carbon pollution of wealthy countries. As drought, floods and violence drive people into these coastal cities, they’re becoming examples of how climate change exacerbates existing problems.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released last week, has a chapter on Africa. It also looks at the continent’s main regions and its warnings for West Africa are the most urgent.
More than half of the continent’s population live in big cities such as Lagos, home to 15 million people. They’re being driven to cities because agriculture, a source of livelihoods for up to 80% of people in countries such as Burkina Faso, is failing.
Rainfall is less predictable and droughts harsher. This is not evenly distributed: West Africa is getting wetter in the east and drier in the west. When rain falls it is in violent spells that strip topsoil and ruin crops. Crops are producing less food, with the yield from a staple such as maize 6% lower than in the 1960s.
For people who rely on livestock, hotter temperatures mean grazing land is being overtaken by shrubs and trees. And pests harmful to livestock are spreading west and north.
Working outdoors is also more difficult. West Africa is already more than a degree warmer than it was a century ago. It will probably get a degree hotter by the middle of this century. And that’s in a best-case — and highly unlikely — scenario where average global temperature increases by just 1.5°C this century.
Since the 1960s, the number of days above 35°C in the region has been increasing. The number of very hot nights has also risen. Heatwaves are hotter and longer than they were in the 20 years before that.
By 2060, more than 110 days a year will be hotter than 40°C. If temperatures increase closer to 2°C, there will be 35% more heatwaves and they will be 37% stronger than at 1.5°C of heating. The 2015 Paris Agreement saw countries commit to the former and aspire to the latter, thanks to the insistence of African states. Although there is no data specifically for West Africa, the IPCC report says GDP per person for the continent was 14% less between 1990 and 2010 as a result of climate change.
Less money means less buying power. When people live in cities, they need money to buy food. External shocks, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has increased maize prices by more than 10%, add pressure on top of this.
For these coastal cities, fish becomes a major source of protein and people’s iron intake. In the best-case climate scenario, the number of fish caught could drop by up to 40%. That’s a result of hotter oceans, which drive fish north to the temperatures they’re evolved to live in. This is without factoring in overseas fishing fleets stripping local oceans.
Put together, this means people are increasingly relying on cities to solve a range of problems. But those cities are repeating the same development mistakes.
The report says efforts to adapt to climate change — and this is universally true — have been small, slow and “designed to respond to current impacts or near-term climate change risks”.
Cities, for example, are stripping away wetlands, mangrove forests and other natural ecosystems that slow down floodwaters and storm surges. Sometimes cement alternatives, such as the more than 6km sea barrier being built around Eko Atlantic in Lagos, seek to replicate those functions. They aren’t as effective. Or as cheap. This new city is also built for those with wealth. People forced to move to cities tend to end up on the periphery, with some 59% of Africans now living in informal settlements in cities.
The land they move onto was not used for other development and can be a floodplain. These areas also don’t get formal development with water and sanitation infrastructure. And temperatures inside a zinc home are up to 5°C hotter than outside. But, because the world is heating and the polluters won’t take responsibility, these cities (and countries) have to respond.
The IPCC report says this has to be with a focus on people. Complicated problems need a diversity of views to help solve them. It’ll mean more investment in public services such as education and healthcare, so people are better able to handle extremes. It’ll mean more green spaces and wetlands in cities, so they can regulate extreme rainfall and also provide cleaner air.
Crucially, it will mean investing in irrigation so farmers don’t rely on unpredictable rainfall to grow food. And it will mean making it easier for people to send money between countries, so families can help each other and those around them.
The overall report ends with a warning of how the time to act is short. “Any further delay … will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
The alternative will see cities with huge populations facing simultaneous, extreme events because of climate change, layered on top of the existing failures of governance and basic humanity. This will be bad everywhere. It’ll be particularly bad in West Africa.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at here