Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Climate Shift Affects African Agriculture, Security, Tourism 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, July 23 / 12

Zack Gross

The most predictable thing about the weather these days is that it is unpredictable and extreme.  Meteorologists and weather broadcasters are, more than even before, forecasting and reporting record temperatures, rainfalls/droughts and humidex readings.  We are now experiencing in Canada this country’s hottest July on record (again!) and there are even reports that our new plastic currency is melting in the above 40 degree Celsius humidex values in southern Ontario – a different sort of economic meltdown!

In Africa, where the world’s most vulnerable people live, populations are contending with their worst droughts in sixty years and overall declines in farm productivity of up to one-quarter.  Researchers say that rainfall has decreased by 12% over the past fifteen years and that two-thirds of farmers have experienced drops in their yields.  Where the world’s population is increasing most and is poorest – in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa – where food is available, prices have jumped one-third due to shortages.

The result of climate change on agriculture can affect the overall culture of societies, sometimes shaking their core beliefs.  For example, traditional medicinal herbs used for cures in African villages are harder to find as they also are victims of the weather.  That puts the role and status of healers at risk.  When rains don’t arrive on time, many traditional farmers face hunger and financial ruin.  They may have little idea of the cause of bad weather or what to do, and some resort to prayer or may give up and move to the city and an uncertain future there.  As many have no formal agricultural training, they may blame themselves when their crop doesn’t come up.

The Sahelian region of West Africa is the focal point of Western aid agency emergency activities these days, where the Sahara Desert has marched south to affect countries like Niger, Mauritania and Chad.  Last year (and continuing) the drought had moved south on the Horn of Africa, affecting Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Currently there are 900 million people living in Africa and this will more than double in the next forty years.  A quarter of Africans are undernourished and yet their governments spend only 5 to 10% of their budgets on agricultural development while Asian governments spend 20%.  African governments tend to focus their budgets in urban areas and program beneficiaries tend to be male. Yet, it is  rural women who make the greatest contribution of labour and have little to show for it in land ownership or political power.

As the Sahel is not far from where the Libyan war against Colonel Ghaddafi recently took place, conflict and climate change have become a lethal mixture, leading to refugee population movement, unemployment and starvation.  A weakened political situation in the area has allowed tribal groups to arm and fight for independence and has allowed inter-tribal or inter-religious tensions to escalate.  Hunger and lack of sanitation have led to a spike in diseases such as cholera and meningitis.

Other parts of Africa and other walks of life are also suffering due to extreme weather.  In Botswana, Southern Africa, a peaceful and relatively prosperous country, tourism, its second largest industry, is taking a hit due to climate shifts.  The Okavango Delta is a tourist magnet as the home to many exotic plant and animal species.  Safaris, bird-watching, photography, camping and traditional canoeing are the order of the day, but a drop in annual rainfall is causing swamps to dry up and forests to be replaced by grasslands.  The species that now attract tourists will die out and critics warn that Botswana’s tourist industry and government are not addressing the issue quickly enough.

Research, education and action to reduce climate change and its impact are the answers, according to the World Bank and many other global institutions.  The new buzzwords are “climate smart agriculture
.”  Making farming the solution instead of the problem involves increasing the organic content of soil in order to create higher yields, hold more moisture and reduce erosion.  More efficient use of firewood will mitigate one cause of climate change.  Better weather forecasting and more training for farmers in best practices in a world of change will also contribute to greater food security.

Although we hear it much too often, there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa.  It has many causes, seemingly the most modern one being climate change.  Mix it with a colonial past, areas of conflict, oppression and corruption, lack of education and training and more, and of course it is easier explained than remedied.  Part of the answer is technical, overcoming the more “scientific” challenges that face the continent.  But, of course, there are also economic, social and historical issues that must be dealt with. One hopes to see a spike in the political will to tackle these problems.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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