Africa cannot turn a blind eye to climate change

Rain-fed agriculture will be severely affected by climate change Copyright: USAID

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African leaders need to stop ignoring climate change and incorporate mitigation and adaptation policies into development, argues Anthony Nyong.

African governments need to be more proactive in dealing with the negative consequences of climate change on the continent.

Almost every published report on the issue identifies Africa as one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change because of its high dependency on rain-fed agriculture and its low adaptive capacity.

Reduced rainfall associated with climate change could leave between 350 and 600 million Africans facing water shortages by the middle of this century, with knock-on effects on agricultural yields and access to shared natural resources.

Already, climate change has created environmental conflict hotspots on the continent — the current violence in Darfur, for example, has been partly blamed on climate-induced resource scarcity (see ‘Darfur needs technical solutions’).

And climate change is a pressing poverty issue that will not only hinder achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, but could even undo the modest gains in economic growth the continent has recorded in the past few years.

Competing pressures

Yet African governments continue to ignore climate change, doing little to integrate it into development policies.


Largely, this lack of interest can be attributed to the many competing problems for African development. For example, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS and maternal and infant mortality in the world, along with the lowest life expectancy and the lowest access to potable water and sanitation.

Many African governments feel that their limited funds are better spent by dealing with these more immediate development crises.

This is especially true for governments that see climate change as a problem of the future. Why should governments use their short political tenures to deal with problems anticipated to occur in the distant future?

Long-term contingency planning carries little weight with electorates, especially when graphic images of starving people here and now are being broadcast on national and international media.

Climate change affects development

But Africa cannot afford to ignore the role that climate change plays in exacerbating these immediate development problems.

Africa’s policymakers must accept that, far from being a long-distant threat, climate change is a phenomenon that is already happening — and already affecting Africans. For example, the continent has seen new outbreaks of diseases such as malaria in previously unaffected areas like the east African highlands, and increased aridity in northern and southern Africa with resultant losses in household and national incomes.

It is true that climate change is a creation of affluent western countries — and that Africa has contributed little to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere. As such, the West has a moral responsibility to Africa and other developing countries to make resources available to adapt to the predicted impacts of climate change.

But African governments cannot afford simply to fold their arms, do nothing and be crippled by the victim mentality. It is not fair to allow the continent’s poor to bear the brunt of climate change impacts when the problems are not of their own doing.

An inclusive approach

While continuing to engage in international climate change negotiations, African governments also need to include climate change in their own national development policies.

All development projects must be ‘climate-proofed’ by incorporating strategies that will protect them from the negative impacts of climate change. This is a win-win situation where climate change and development problems are targeted and addressed simultaneously. This is a more efficient way of using Africa’s lean resources.

Some developed countries have shown a strong commitment to tackling the problem of climate change and development in Africa — several donors have invested substantially in reducing Africa’s vulnerability to climate change through the implementation of several adaptation programmes.

But, while such efforts may contribute to reducing Africa’s vulnerability to climate change, the best adaptation is still mitigation. Giving out aid to support Africa’s adaptation to climate change does not remove developed countries’ moral obligations to cut down greenhouse gas emissions.

No amount of aid can shield Africa from the adverse impacts of climate change. While African governments can integrate climate concerns into development policies, the West must also curb greenhouse gas emissions or Africa will not be able to achieve sustainable development.

Anthony Nyong is senior programme specialist for the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa programme at the International Development Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.