/ 5 November 2023

Climate change effects on Africa are ‘brutal’

Members Of Turkana Community Joined By Climate Activists
Protest: Members of the Turkana community, joined by climate activists, take to the streets, rallying for renewable energy and urging delegates to expedite the phase-out of fossil fuels during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya in September. Photo: James Wakibia/Getty Images

Africa, like other regions, has to come to terms with the reality that climate change is already happening, according to Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, the African Union commissioner for agriculture, rural development, blue economy and sustainable environment.

“Left untamed, the coming decades and years would easily be characterised by severe climate-induced pressure on the continent’s economies, livelihoods and nature,” Sacko wrote in the preface to the recent State of Climate in Africa in 2022 report of the World Meteorological Organisation. It was produced jointly with the AU Commission and the Africa Climate Policy Centre.

Given the continent’s high exposure, fragility and low adaptive capacity, the effects of climate change are “expected to be felt more severely”, she said, noting how human health, peace, prosperity, infrastructure and other economic activities across many sectors are exposed to significant risks.

Although agriculture is the mainstay of Africa’s livelihoods and national economies, supporting 55% to 62% of the labour force in sub-Saharan Africa alone, its agricultural productivity growth has fallen by 34% since 1961 because of climate change. This decline is the highest compared with other regions of the world, she said. 

“In recent years, the continent has been hit by extreme weather and climate events, including tropical cyclones … The 2015 drought in Southern Africa resulted in a 2% reduction in GDP in some countries, with hydropower generation lacking water to operate.” The drought situation is the “same or even worse” in the Horn of Africa. 

Heavy rains and cyclones have caused floods, resulting in the loss of billions in funds; damage to property and other infrastructure; waterborne diseases and deaths, she said. These extremes and their associated consequences are “expected to persist or increase” in the near future. 

Africa, Sacko said, views better monitoring and understanding of the climate as a “springboard for climate-informed decision-making”, development planning and actual climate action.

Africa is the continent most susceptible to the climate crisis despite its small contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, “especially in all scenarios with temperatures exceeding 1.5°C”, according to Nosipho Zwane, lead scientist for climate change and variability at the South African Weather Service.

“As Africans, we unfortunately face exponential collateral damage, impacting our underdeveloped economy; vulnerable infrastructures and properties; water and food systems; health; livelihood and agriculture,” she said. “The impact of climate change on the continent is brutal, leading to us sliding into higher levels of extreme poverty.”

She said climate change is a major threat to Africa achieving sustainable development goals because of its high exposure to multiple hazards, low adaptive capacity and constrained resources. 

Adapting to the adverse effects of climate change is urgent and requires funds. Access to funds will provide an opportunity for the continent to mainstream climate change.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s report, based on data provided in the Emergency Event Database, in Africa 80 meteorological, hydrological and climate-related hazards were reported last year, with 56% of these flood-related events. 

“These natural hazard events resulted in around 5 000 fatalities, of which 48% were associated with drought and 43% were associated with flooding. Overall, more than 110 million people were directly affected by these disaster events, causing a total of over $8.5 billion in economic damages.” 

Although drought was the leading cause of death and people affected, flooding was the biggest cause of economic damage, the report noted. But the true figures related to the effect of extreme events are presumed to be greater because of under-reporting.

All six African sub-regions have experienced an increase in temperature over the past 60 years compared with the period before 1960, the report said. The warming has been most rapid in North Africa, about +0.4°C per decade from 1991 to last year, compared with +0.2°C a decade from 1961 to 1990. 

Southern Africa had the slowest warming trend compared with the other sub-regions — about +0.2°C per decade from 1991 to last year. Last year, most of Africa recorded temperatures above the 1991-to-2020 average. 

“The exceptions were the desert areas of North and Southern Africa. However, these are also data-sparse regions in the continent, where uncertainties are relatively higher.” 

Last year, South Africa had a mean temperature about 0.4°C above the average of the 1991-to-2020 reference period, making it the fourth-hottest year on record since 1951. In contrast, Cameroon experienced one of its coldest years in the past 20, with a temperature anomaly of -0.24°C compared with the 1991-to-2020 average.

The report said the increasing occurrence and intensity of extreme weather and climate events is reducing agricultural productivity, driving agricultural expansion and threatening biodiversity and ecosystems. 

“Climate change and the diminishing natural resource base could fuel conflicts for scarce productive land, water and pastures, where farmer-herder violence has increased over the past 10 years due to growing land pressure, with geographic concentrations in many sub-Saharan countries,” the report said.

The Horn of Africa faced its worst drought in 40 years, with Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia particularly hard hit. Five consecutive failed rainfall seasons reduced agricultural productivity and food security. 

In Somalia, almost 1.2 million people were internally displaced by the effect of drought on pastoral and farming livelihoods and hunger. 

Crops threatened: Workers at a banana plantation in Akordat, Eritrea, earlier this year. Local farmer Efraim Tesfolde Terfe said that increased temperatures in the region have made managing fields and clearing undergrowth and weeds after harvests nearly impossible. Photo: J Countess/Getty Images

A further 512 000 internal displacements associated with drought were recorded in Ethiopia. Many parts of the Sahel experienced significant flooding, with Nigeria, Niger, Chad and the southern half of Sudan particularly affected.

The Southern Africa region was hit by a series of tropical cyclones and tropical storms in the first months of last year, leading to flooding and population displacement. “There was little time for recovery between shocks in nations like Madagascar.”

The report noted how per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in Africa in 2021 were 1.04 metric tons per person, compared with the global average of 4.69 metric tons per person. 

“Nevertheless, African countries are pursuing win-win policies that will better minimise their greenhouse emissions while tackling urban pollution,” it said.

More than 50 African countries have submitted their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are their climate action plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Agriculture and food security, water, disaster risk reduction and health are the priorities for adaptation.

Implementing Africa’s NDCs will require up to $2.8 trillion from 2020 to 2030. The African Development Bank has doubled its climate finance to $25 billion by 2025 and devoted 67% of its climate finance to adaptation, in addition to its effort to raise up to $13 billion for its Africa Development Fund.

The loss and damage costs in Africa because of climate change are projected to range from $290 billion (in a 2°C warming scenario) to $440 billion (in a 4°C warming scenario). 

“African states need more tools, capacity and knowledge generation mechanisms to provide details and specifics about national loss and damage,” it noted. 

About a third of the world’s people, mainly in least-developed countries and small island developing states, have no early-warning systems. 

“In Africa, the situation is precarious: 60% of people lack coverage.”

Zwane said the goal of the Early Warnings for all Action Plan for Africa, which is led by the World Meteorological Organisation, is to save lives and livelihoods on the continent. The initiative is a broad effort to prevent climate-change-disproportionate socio-economic effects, especially in regions that experience extreme weather events.

“The initiative is great for the continent … prioritising vulnerable communities, strengthening disaster risk knowledge and management, observation and forecasting, dissemination and communication of warnings, and preparedness and response capabilities.” 

Zwane added that the purpose of early warning is to ensure sufficient time to reduce the possibility of harm or loss. “This action plan will ensure increased access to early warning information to vulnerable communities.”