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Africa - up in smoke?

Working Group on Climate Change and Development

June 2005

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Table of contents

Executive summary

Africa – a special case for climate change
Global warming is already affecting Africa.1 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that, “the effects of climate change are expected to be greatest in developing countries in terms of loss of life and relative effects on investment and economy.” It describes Africa, the world’s poorest region, as “the continent most vulnerable to the impacts of projected change because widespread poverty limits adaptation capabilities”.2

Small-scale farming provides most of the food produced in Africa, as well as employment for 70 per cent of working people.3 These simple facts, coupled with farming being overwhelmingly dependent on direct rainfall, mean that Africa is exceptionally vulnerable to the uncertainties and weather extremes of global warming.

But a vulnerable agricultural system is not the only problem. The continent is more exposed to the impacts of climate change than many other regions in the world.4 Its 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.

All these factors call for a new model of development in which strategies to increase human resilience in the face of climate change and the stability of ecosystems are central. It calls for a new test on every policy and project, in which the key question will be, “Are you increasing or decreasing people’s vulnerability to the climate?”

Above all, the challenge calls for a new flexibility and not a one-size-fits-all, neoliberal-driven approach to development. As this Report observes, just as an investment portfolio spreads risk by including a variety of stocks and shares, so an agricultural system geared to manage the risks of changing climate requires a rich diversity of approaches in terms of what is grown, and how it is grown.

But, even where the links to climate change are under-appreciated, Africa is a continent only too aware of the threat of ‘natural’ disasters and the obstacles they pose to poverty reduction. Mozambique hit world headlines at the beginning of the new Millennium when it was hit by floods on a biblical scale. Now, its Action Plan for the Reduction of Absolute Poverty 2001–2005 states: “Natural disasters… constitute an obstacle to a definitive break with certain degrees and patterns of poverty. Therefore, measures aimed at managing these risks are of the utmost importance.” More generally, the environment action plan of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) observes, “Natural disasters… cause considerable human suffering and economic damage in the continent.” And quite recently, governments agreed at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in January 2005 that, “Disasters in Africa pose a major obstacle to the African continent’s efforts to achieve sustainable development.”5

Unfortunately, even this level of awareness is not the same as having a coherent and adequately funded approach to tackling the problem.

Recently the role of developing new technology has been strongly emphasised. In particular, governments have focused on how to improve weather forecasting in Africa. There is a consensus among development groups, however, that a greater and more urgent challenge is strengthening communities from the bottom-up, and building on their own coping strategies to live with global warming. The need to give much more support to small-scale farming comes up again and again from the field experience of development groups, along with the priority for access to energy from sustainable sources.

We believe it is not necessary to wait years for more research on climate change before investing in disaster risk reduction. Governments have agreed on the need for action, and tools and methods for protecting communities from disasters are well developed. Now they need to be employed immediately in African countries and communities on a much greater scale.

At the moment, spending priorities are perverse. For every $1 spent on preparing for disaster, a further $7 is saved in the cost of recovering from it. Yet, as in the case of Mozambique, requests for resources to prepare for disasters before the great floods went seriously under-funded, leaving a huge disaster-relief bill to be paid after the floods.

This Report finds that concerns about the effects of climate change on rural African societies are more than justified. Climate change is happening, and it is affecting livelihoods that depend on the natural environment, which, in Africa, means nearly everyone. However, even without adequate support, far from being passive victims, people recognise even small changes in climate, and are taking steps to respond to them.

Climate Change is happening and when all the impacts are added up, everyone will lose out sooner or later. Some people will adapt more successfully than others, and climate change may well result in a polarisation of wealth and well-being in ways we have not seen before. Polarisation of wealth can, for example, create an overall drag on human development. In addition to the core recommendations already made by the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, in the light of Africa’s special circumstances, these further proposals are considered a minimum needed to manage the impact of global warming on the continent. Without them, whatever achievements in development may have been won in Africa in the last few decades could be reversed by climate change.

  1. Hulme, M, et al (2001): ‘African Climate Change: 1900-2100’, Climate Research, 17:145-168.

  2. IPCC (2001) Third Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers.

  3. Maxwell, S (2001) ‘WDR 2001: Is there a “new poverty agenda”?’ Development Policy Review 19 (1): 143–149.

  4. McCarthy, J et al, eds, (2001) Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, IPCC Working Group II, Third Assessment Report. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).

  5. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015.

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