Published 03 Nov 09
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Climate Change and Security in Africa
For much of Africa's post-independence history, "African unity" was more an aspiration than a reality. Consequently, even when, as I pointed out three weeks ago, African states manage to get their act together and make a rare joint appeal for sanctions against one of their number—in the most recent case, against the Isaias Afewerki regime in Eritrea for it attempts to destabilize neighboring countries—it is comprehensible, if disappointing, that they are largely ignored. Thus, while development has been virtually ignored by the Western media, the decision of the African Union (AU) to field a unified delegation empowered to negotiate on behalf of all member states in upcoming international negotiations on climate change is nothing short of historic—as well it should be given the implications of this newest threat to the security of the continent.
At its summit in this past summer in Sirte, Libya, and acting upon the recommendations of its Executive Council, the AU Assembly decided to establish the Conference of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC). In turn, this body—consisting of Algeria, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, the Chairperson of the AU (currently Libya's Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi), the Chairperson of the AU Commission (currently Jean Ping of Gabon), and the Chair of the Conference of African Ministers on the Environment (currently South Africa)—chose Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who originally proposed the idea of a single voice speaking for Africa to his peers earlier this year, to lead the unified delegation to the Conference of Parties (COP 15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in December. Why this tremendous interest in climate change if, as the Ethiopian leader noted in a speech to climate experts meeting in Addis Ababa two months ago, "we Africans have contributed virtually nothing to global warming and there is precious little that we can do to curb it"?
The fact is that, while among the regions of the world Africa may be the least responsible for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions which most scientific opinions blame for global warming, it nonetheless stands to suffer the most. In its most recent assessment report, the fourth in the series, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded with "high confidence" that "Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability, a situation aggravated by the interaction of 'multiple stresses,' occurring at various levels, and low adaptive capacity." The report's authors anticipated that the consequences of this state of affairs would include:
• Current adaptations by African food producers to cope with climate variability will prove inadequate in the face of future changes.
• As a result, "agricultural production and food security (including access to food) in many African countries and regions are likely to be severely compromised."
• Changes in ecosystems will occur at faster rates than previously anticipated.
• Anticipated rises in sea-level "will probably increase the high socio-economic and physical vulnerability of coastal cities."
• It is "likely that climate change will alter the ecology of some disease vectors in Africa, and consequently the spatial and temporal transmission of such diseases" as malaria, dengue fever, meningitis, and cholera, among others (although some scholars have subsequently argued that there are more cost-efficient means than carbon cuts to reduce incidents of disease; see the Wall Street Journal op-ed this week by Bjorn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center).
Nowhere are the changes and their impact likely to be more dramatic than in rainfall patterns—annual precipitation is expected to decrease throughout Africa with the possible exception of the eastern part of the continent—and the resulting immediate consequence to the agricultural sector. The IPCC predicts mean annual rainfall to decrease by 20 percent along the Mediterranean coast, while winter rains in southern Africa will also decrease, by perhaps as much as 40 percent. Less precipitation will have a serious impact on agriculture, most of which is dependent upon rainfall. The social, economic, and political fallout from such a decline cannot be underestimated. As Oli Brown and Alec Crawford noted in an International Institute for Sustainable Development study commissioned for the summit of Scandinavian and African foreign ministers earlier this year, "Agriculture represents on average between 20 to 30 per cent of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa and makes up 55 per cent of the total value of African exports. Meanwhile, depending on the country, between 60 and 90 per cent of the total labor force in sub-Saharan Africa is employed in agriculture." Thus, all the more cause for concern when an eminent scientist like Sir Gordon Conway, outgoing chief scientific adviser to the British Department for International Development and former president of both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Royal Geographical Society, comes forth with conclusions like those contained in his Grantham Institute paper last month. Sir Gordon observed that not only is "there is already evidence that Africa is warming faster than the global average and this is likely to continue," but that "chronic hunger is likely to be made worse by climate change" with "projected reductions in yield in some countries could be as much as 50 percent by 2020, and net crop revenues could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100, with small-scale farmers most vulnerable."
Broadly speaking, the challenges arising from access to water will only multiply—a observation that should come as no surprise given that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) post-conflict environmental assessment for Sudan, published in mid-2007, already made the argument that there were "complex but clear linkages exist between environmental problems and the ongoing conflict" in Darfur (see also my preliminary review two weeks ago of the new U.S. policy on Sudan). In fact, the report insisted that "indeed, climate change, land degradation and the resulting competition over scarce natural resources are among the root causes as well as the consequences of the violence and grave humanitarian situation in the region."
Not all of these potential conflicts will be relatively contained internal disputes involving various groups within a given country in the timeless struggle between sedentary farmers and nomadic pastoralists over limited arable land and declining water resources. Access by the countries of the Nile basin, for example, to the great river's water—which is itself highly dependent on precipitation levels in the Great Lakes region as well as the highlands of Ethiopia—has long been contentious, with Egypt making greater use of the waters than all the other riparian states combined. How long the current state of affairs, whereby Egypt and Sudan allocated the river's waters without consulting the other countries along the course of the Nile, can last is anyone's guess. However, with more than 85 million people to feed, Ethiopia, where Blue Nile rises from Lake Tana and which contributes nearly 90 percent of the water and over 95 percent of the sediment carried by the Nile proper, will likely be making increasingly assertive claims of its right to the water resources. On the other hand, Egypt's rulers have made no secret of their own willingness to defend their claims, President Anwar al-Sadat even declaring once that "any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if the action should lead to war." The late Ethiopian scholar Kinfe Abraham warning should be heeded: "Utilization of the Nile waters is neither based on law or common sense. The lower riparians (Sudan and Egypt) contribute nothing to it, but consume most of it. In contrast, the upper riparians hardly utilize anything. This happens under circumstances of institutional and legal void. The sad status quo cannot last."
Alongside water scarcity, encroaching deserts present another challenge, not just in terms of the impact on local communities and broader food security, but in terms of mass migrations which have the effect of redrawing the demographic maps of entire countries or regions and putting previously discrete populations in direct competition for the same resources which are possibly even scarcer now thanks to climate change. A prime example of this phenomenon is the movement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Malians and Burkinabés to Côte d'Ivoire in the 1970s and early 1980s. The immigrants sought to escape the severe droughts and progressive desertification of their homelands and were initially welcomed as much-needed manual laborers. When economy shifted in 1990s and the immigrants became less desirable, the conditions were set for the conflict which, fanned by outside interests, ravaged the country for most of this decade and which, hopefully, will be brought to an end with the long-delayed national elections scheduled for the end of this month.
While lack of water presents one set of problems, an excess of it lead to another. A rise in the sea-level poses significant risks to both populations and economies along Africa's littorals. The IPCC report warned:
In Africa, highly productive ecosystems (mangroves, estuaries, deltas, coral reefs), which form the basis for important economic activities such as tourism and fisheries, are located in the coastal zone. Forty percent of the population of West Africa lives in coastal cities, and it is expected that the 500 km of coastline between Accra and the Niger delta will become a continuous urban megalopolis of more than 50 million inhabitants by 2020. By 2015, three coastal megacities of at least 8 million inhabitants will be located in Africa. The projected rise in sea level will have significant impacts on these coastal megacities because of the concentration of poor populations in potentially hazardous areas that may be especially vulnerable to such changes…
In the Gulf of Guinea, sea-level rise could induce overtopping and even destruction of the low barrier beaches that limit the coastal lagoons, while changes in precipitation could affect the discharges of rivers feeding them. These changes could also affect lagoonal fisheries and aquaculture. Indian Ocean islands could also be threatened by potential changes in the location, frequency and intensity of cyclones; while East African coasts could be affected by potential changes in the frequency and intensity of [El Niño-Southern Oscillation] events and coral bleaching. Coastal agriculture (e.g., plantations of palm oil and coconuts in Benin and Côte d'Ivoire, shallots in Ghana) could be at risk of inundation and soil salinization. In Kenya, losses for three crops (mangoes, cashew nuts and coconuts) could cost almost US$500 million for a one-meter sea-level rise (Republic of Kenya, 2002). In Guinea, between 130 and 235 square-kilometers of rice fields (17 percent and 30 percent of the existing rice field area) could be lost as a result of permanent flooding, depending on the inundation level considered (between 5 and 6 meters) by 2050. In Eritrea, a one-meter rise in sea level is estimated to cause damage of over $250 million as a result of the submergence of infrastructure and other economic installations in Massawa, one of the country's two port cities. These results confirm previous studies stressing the great socio-economic and physical vulnerability of settlements located in marginal areas.
Temperature, the transformation of the worldwide market for agricultural commodities, and other global trends are also likely to have an impact. A recent Environmental Science & Technology study by Dr. Molly Brown, a geographer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and two colleagues concluded with respect to West Africa that:
Climate change is likely to further threaten the ability of the region to compete in a global food system. Although the likely impact of climate change on rainfall in the region is currently unclear, increases in average temperature will undoubtedly reduce yields… Changes in climate, coupled with the likely doubling of the local population (in West Africa) and an addition of at least two billion more people to feed globally in the next two decades, make it very likely that food prices will return to and surpass the levels seen in 2008 ...
Global climate change and global market pricing correlations will impact the region in several ways. First, increasing temperatures and changes in the water cycle are likely to require adaptations in the local agricultural system. Second, strategies implemented by the developed world to reduce carbon emissions (such as the institution of permit markets or carbon taxes) are likely to increase energy prices, which will have a spillover effect on food prices due to the coupling of the food and energy markets. Third, an increase in the use of biofuels, which is another likely method to reduce emissions from industrialized countries, will put direct upward pressure on food crop pricing as it is a direct competitor for agricultural land and capital. Because the region already relies on food imports to close the gap between production and food needs, it is already vulnerable to international price fluctuations.
Beyond food security of countries that are eking by, a rise in temperature also threatens the economies of African countries that have managed to leverage their comparative advantage in agricultural production to also encompass value-added inputs. Thus, for example, coffee in Uganda where from small-hold farmers to primary processors to roasters and exporters, the sector provides the livelihoods for more than 3.5 million families, according to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority. Yet a report by Oxfam last year concluded that "the future outlook…is bleak: if average global temperatures rise by 2 degrees more – as they are almost certainly going to do – then most of Uganda is likely to cease to be suitable for coffee."
In an article published last year, John Podesta and Peter Ogden of the Center for American Progress drew an equally bleak picture of what might be in store for Africa's most populous state, Nigeria, from a combination of factors related to overall climate change:
Nigeria will suffer from climate-induced drought, desertification, and sea-level rise. Already, approximately 1,350 square miles of Nigerian land turns to desert each year, forcing both farmers and herdsmen to abandon their homes. Lagos is one of the West African coastal megacities that the IPCC identifies as at risk from sea-level rise by 2015. This, coupled with high population growth (Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, and three-fourths of the population is under the age of 30), will force significant migration and contribute to political and economic turmoil. For example, it will exacerbate the existing internal conflict over oil production in the Niger Delta. To date, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has carried out a successful campaign of armed attacks, sabotage, and kidnappings that has forced a shutdown of 25 percent of the country's oil output. Given that Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest and Africa's single-largest oil exporter, this instability is having an impact on the price of oil, and it will have global strategic implications in the coming decades.
In point of fact, due in large part to the ongoing conflict in the Niger Delta, Nigeria is no longer Africa's most important oil producer.
Earlier this year, the Commission on the Effective Development Cooperation with Africa, chaired by Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, published a report recommending a refocused agenda for international development efforts on the continent. The document observed: "Climate change affects all aspects of development in Africa. Although it has contributed the least to climate change, Africa will be hardest hit by its impacts. The scarcity of water resources and increased intensity and volatility of rainfall worsen livelihoods and increase the costs of providing basic infrastructure such as roads and sanitation. Climate change will compromise the productivity of low-technology agriculture, on which the livelihoods of the majority of Africans, especially women, depend. The cost of doing business will also increase, further limiting the options for growth." Consequently, it advocated that "the international community should support African governments in adapting to the risks and impacts of climate change and benefiting from mitigation measures." It remains, however, to be seen both if the negotiators meeting in Spain this week in a final attempt to break a deadlock between rich and poor countries before COP 15 will manage to salvage a deal and if the G20 finance ministers meeting in Scotland this weekend will agree to finance any compromise scheme that comes out of the earlier encounter (most certainly the numbers, ranging from $200 billion to $400 billion, thrown around at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment in Addis Ababa last week represent unreal expectations in the current global economy).
In recent years, the United States has increasingly acknowledged that it has significant national interests in Africa which are best advanced by helping African partners achieve stability and security for themselves and their people. Now policymakers and analysts must also come to terms with the fact that the achievement of these strategic objectives cannot be divorced from efforts to help those least responsible for climate change to cope with its effects and that this realization needs to inform all aspects of America's engagement with Africa.
— J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean's, among others.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham
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