It is now common knowledge that global temperatures have increased, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global mean surface temperature has increased by about 0.07oC per decade in the last century.
However, in the last 25 years, temperatures have risen faster about 0.18oC per decade with the last decade (2001-2010) being the warmest on record. The average temperature over this period is 0.46oC more than the 1961-1990 mean, and 0.21oC warmer than previous decades. This is consistent with a long term warming trend.
Except in the eastern pacific, southern Ocean and parts of Antarctica, surface warming is occurring everywhere; however, the land is warning faster than the ocean. It is projected that global mean temperatures may rise by between 1.4oC and 5.8oC by the end of the 21st century (IPCC).
As a result of the increase in global temperatures, the global average sea level has risen since 1961 at an average rate of 1.8 mm per year, and since 1993 at 3.1 mm per year. At the same time, there has been a significant increase in precipitation in the southern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia.
While these regions are experiencing heavy precipitation events, others including the Sahel, the Mediterranean, South Africa and parts of south Asia are experiencing dry conditions.
Decadal global average combined land-ocean surface temperature (°C), redrawn from WMO, 2011.
Changes in extreme weather conditions have also been recorded. For instance, cold days, cold nights and frost are less frequent, while hot days, hot nights, and heat waves are more frequent.
Intense and longer spells of droughts have been observed since the 1970s, especially in the tropics and subtropics.
Most parts of Africa have experienced changes in weather patterns in the few past decades. Temperature increase across the continent has been recorded since the 1960s with 2010 being the warmest year on record in Africa, particularly, for West Africa, the Sahara/Arabian region, and the Mediterranean. In 2010, average temperatures recorded over Africa were 1.29oC more than the long term average.
On the whole, the continent has been drier in the few past decades. But while rainfall has decreased in some regions, other regions have experienced and increase. For example, during the period from 1961-1990, rainfall has dropped in the horn of Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, the Transvaal, and the Sahel.
On the other hand, a significant increase in rainfall has been reported in South Africa and in the Volta Basin. Central Africa (Congo basin) also experienced a drop of 2-3% in precipitation, but heavy rainfall events increased over Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia between 1931 and 1990.
For the past 30 years, the frequency of extreme climatic conditions have increased in Africa.
The severity and rate of occurrence of droughts have increased in Eastern Africa, where droughts have occurred in each decade over the past 50 years. Droughts have become more frequent in Central Africa and the Sahel since the late 1960s.
Conversely, an increase in rainfall extremes has been observed in Southern Africa and the Guinean Coast with an increase in the frequency of rain days and heavy rains often accompanied by severe floods. The southern part of Nigeria has also experienced devastating floods in the last five decades.
The frequent occurrence of these extreme climatic events is due to the increase in Green House Gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, which is significantly altering the earth’s climate. Although the more developed countries are largely responsible for the increase in GHGs, Africa also contributes to the increase in various ways.
These include deforestation, release of black carbon (including gas flaring and bush burning), methane from waste (improper waste management) and other industrial activities. However, the amount of GHGs released from these processes in Africa is very small compared to other developed continents.
Many would expect that the impact climate change has on a region should be proportional to the amount of GHGs produced by that particular region, but this is not always the case as the impact is not commensurate with the amount of GHGs released. Although Africa is the least contributor to GHGs, it is the most vulnerable to climate change and variability.
The continent has experienced many problems ranging from food insecurity to conflicts since the inception of climate change in the 1960s. This has impeded economic growth and development in many countries on the continent.
Agriculture and Food Security: About three-quarters of Africa’s population depend on agriculture as a source of livelihood, and in many countries of Africa, agriculture is very sensitive to weather conditions. Majority of farmers on the continent depend solely on rainfall as source of irrigation water, and whenever the rains fail, agricultural activities are severely affected.
On the other hand, when the amount and intensity of rainfall far exceeds what is expected, farmers usually end up losing almost all their crops and livestock. One country that has had a taste of both extreme weather conditions is Ghana.
The three Northern regions of Ghana have suffered from serious droughts in the past. One major drought event occurred in 1982-83; this led to shortage of food, famine and a decline in human livelihood (WRC, 2010).
The country has also experienced severe floods in the past. In 2007, the Northern region was hit by serious floods which affected more than 325,000 people and about 100,000 of them needed help in order to restore their livelihoods.
The floods were followed by a period of drought, which aggravated the problems of the inhabitants of the region. In 2009, six districts in the Upper East region experienced catastrophic floods which resulted in the loss of 105 cattle, 2,074 small ruminants and 11,911 fowls. A total of 7,117.4 hectares of farm land was destroyed by the flood (WRC, 2010).
Similarly, The Horn of Africa’s rural areas (Ethiopia-Kenya-Somalia border) have been severely hit by recurrent droughts; livestock losses have plunged about 11 million people dependent on livestock for their livelihoods into a crisis and triggered mass migration of pastoralists out of drought-affected areas.
Climate change is also contributing to oceanic acidification, and an increase in surface water temperatures across the African continent, negatively affecting fish stocks and threatening the livelihood of coastal and small-scale fishing communities.
The impacts of climate change on agriculture and other key economic sectors in the food production and supply chain, such as forestry and energy, threaten food security across sub-Saharan Africa.
Conflicts: Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability. For example, water scarcity could bring about serious disagreements between communities and nations as they struggle to access the limited water available.
One of the most severe consequences has been the Darfur conflict in the Sudan, which originated from clashes between pastoralists and sedentary farmers over depleted water and other resources. Also, forced migration may put previously separate groups into conflict over the same resources.
Given the history of ethnic, resource and political conflicts in Africa, climate change could exacerbate territorial and border disputes and complicate conflict resolution and mediation processes. Highly volatile regions in Africa, such as Darfur, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the DRC and northern Kenya, all have populations living in fragile and unstable conditions making them vulnerable to effects of climate change and the risk of violent conflict.
Declining water resources and shrinking agricultural land are already intensifying competition for those resources, and creating tensions for displaced populations or those moving in search of improved livelihoods. Conflicts and political instability would definitely reduce the capacity of African countries to cope with climate change.
Health: Climate change is also a major cause of the spread of infectious and water-borne communicable diseases in Africa. Many a people in Africa are being exposed to malaria (already a leading cause of death in the region) due to temperature increases and intensifying rains which affect previously malaria-free areas such as the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands.
A joint UNEP-UNAIDS study established complex links between climate change and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. Climate change also has indirect effects on health in the region through ecosystems degradation and poor sanitation, which contribute to malnutrition, cholera and diarrheal diseases, and increase in child mortality.
Poor water and sanitation is linked to climate-induced droughts and floods, and according to WHO and UNICEF (Joint News Release, March 2008), accounts for more than 20 percent of the burden of disease in Africa.
Economic Impacts: it’s been projected that by 2040, climate change will lead to about 2-4% loss in GDP in Africa (including market and non-market sectors, without adaptation), and by 2100, regions of arid and semi-arid land are expected to expand by 5-8%, or 60-90 million hectares, resulting in agricultural losses of between 0.4-7% of GDP in northern, western, central and southern Africa (IPCC, 2007).
Adaptation could (but not entirely) reduce the economic costs of climate change in Africa significantly from 2% to 1% of GDP by 2040 (that is, from $ 230 billion to $ 148 billion), and from 10% to 7% of GDP by 2100 ($ 530 billion to $ 349 billion with a business as usual (BAU) scenario).
Africa’s vulnerability to climate change and variability are mainly due to the following reasons:
• Many poor communities in Africa tend to have a higher share of their assets and wealth tied up in natural resources, so anything that damages the natural resource base will certainly have a negative impact on these communities and their countries.
• The lack of irrigation facilities and the reliance on rainfall by most farmers in Africa is making crop production highly vulnerable to even slight changes in rainfall patterns.
• One third of Africa’s productive area is already classified as dry land, and climate change may bring less rainfall and a shorter growing season, extending such dry lands over a larger area.
• Most governments and institutions are weak and inadequately resourced, so those vulnerable to climate change would have to find ways to cope on their own, and the brain drain on the few well-qualified people further limits capacity African countries.
• Most people operate at low levels of income with limited reserves, and lack formal insurance cover.
Unlike most developing countries in Africa, developed nations are less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This is because developed countries are able to adapt faster to changes in weather conditions.
Developed countries have over the years put in place structures that make them more resilient to the stresses and shocks posed by climate change. Developing countries can follow suit by investing in building their resilience to climate change. Countermeasures contributing to greater resilience can take many different forms, including social, economic and technological:
• Institutional: land-use zoning, integrated warning systems
• Economic: weather insurance, micro-credit schemes
• Physical: cyclone shelters, embankments
• Medical: vaccines
• Environmental: mangrove shelterbelts
• Agricultural: drought- and flood-resistant crop varieties, increased nutrients
• Livelihood: income diversity, rural-urban linkages, ability to migrate
• Education: information and development of skills
Resilience is important at national, regional and local levels, and involves not only technologies, but also appropriate economic policies and institutional arrangements. In addition, improved forecasts and early warning systems are increasingly being recognized among the basic requirements for adaptation, particularly to prevent the damaging effects of floods, droughts and tropical cyclones.
Besides, they can be useful in predicting disease outbreaks in areas that are susceptible to epidemics. Other requirements for adaptation include the creation of awareness on climate change at different levels and scales, from policy makers to communities. Moreover, education and research are crucial to building adaptive capacity, particularly when linked to practice through extension.
The importance of linking research to policy- making is particularly being emphasized along with the need to incorporate the local knowledge on coping strategies and practices. Improving communication between researchers and vulnerable communities is a prerequisite for an effective adaptation strategy.
Furthermore, it is important to identify mechanisms for ensuring the adoption and incorporation of climate information including forecasts into the livelihood strategies of different stakeholder groups. Also, a number of research studies have suggested the need for improvement of the format and content of the rainfall forecast messages and to communicate them in a way that ensures their timely use by people in Africa, particularly those living in the disaster prone areas.
In recent times, many stakeholders have called for the involvement of women in climate change issues. A most recent call was made at a workshop organized by ABANTU for Development with support from IBIS Ghana.
The workshop, which was held in Accra, sought to strengthen civil society organizations to come up with programs that address the interrelationship between gender, climate change and sustainable development. It is believed that women are likely to suffer more from the effects of climate change because of existing gender inequalities.
It is therefore imperative to empower women and get them involved in all activities aimed at climate change mitigation.
Climate change in Africa is a reality, and it is adding to the numerous problems that most African countries already face. There is an urgent need for governments, NGOs, universities (which house the majority of climate change researchers in Africa), and the private sector to work together to build up the resilience of Africa and its people.