Climate Change and Africa’s Food Security: investing in science and scientific research is key

On 23rd December, hardly a day away from Christmas eve celebrations in Kenya, the capital city of Nairobi was pounded by a rain storm for a good 20 minutes after which, there were reports of uprooted trees which had fallen on vehicles killing people and on houses. The 20-minute disruption blocked roads and blew up electricity transmitters, causing many Kenyans to go without electricity and associated Christmas celebrations and even carols. For many households, no electricity for two days meant food beginning to go bad and no internet for those who wished to send Season’s greetings, or just to go on working.

When access to news became possible, we became aware of the destruction that has continued to date, following what now appears to be the El Niño rains that had been predicted by the meteorologists sometime back. Roads were blocked by floods, animals were being drowned as opposed to what we had seen previously (carcasses of dead animals following severe drought), houses were submerged in water, people had died, and grains could not be dried after harvest because these rains were unexpected. Then we realized Kenya was not alone. In the USA, and in Europe the winter appears to be more severe than in other years, causing flight cancellations and disrupting holiday travel even for motorists;  in Brazil, mudslides were killing scores of people; in Asia, there were earthquakes and volcano eruptions causing human deaths; and in Tanzania and neighboring environs, and even in Kenya, earth tremors were felt. All this came on the heels of the Copenhagen Conference that assembled more than 45,000 participants from around the globe, to discuss the future of mankind. The whole issue of climate change has become fairly emotive. The Kyoto Protocol was revisited. It is assumed that all of us are interested, or care enough about the environment to understand what the Kyoto Protocol contained. Regardless of which side one is on, I believe it is important to understand some of the terminology that has been used as these issues will continue to concern us for years to come. In other words, we need to understand what our common future is; clearly it is tied to all these environmental issues.

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in Kyoto Japan on December 11 1997 is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. The Protocol set binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% yearly between 2008 and 2012. Eleven years was allowed to prepare to start meeting these targets. The protocol encouraged, and the convention committed the industrialized countries to abide by these agreements. Needless to say, there was nothing binding or compulsory here, and even then how does it get done? Why the heavier burden on industrialized countries? It is argued that 150 years of industrialization that has brought these countries to their level of affluence is the reason the world finds itself in the current climate change crisis. Why are the developing countries not amused?

Most of the developing countries are trying to improve the conditions of their people, aiming at industrialization. Yet, they cannot do so under the current conditions. They are being told that they too must curb greenhouse gas emissions. So how then are we going to become affluent? And why should we pay the same price as those who have developed with little restriction imposed on them? Is it fair? And what compensatory measures will be put in place for those who have not benefitted from the many years of industrialization?

This process has been taken very seriously, not just by environment professionals, but by many nations and activists as well. Four years before the start of the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol in 2008, Marrakesh Accords were adopted in 2001, and constitute a set of detailed rules to implement the Protocol.

Only in September last year I had written about the drought Kenya was facing that had caused famine to more than one third (ten million) of Kenyans since. Yet today, three months later, harvested food is being destroyed and hunger will set in for exactly the opposite reasons. Then it was drought and now it is floods. Yes, floods always follow drought. Of course no one is going to tell me how much of the torrential rain we are now saving for a dry day. So the cycle continues, except that these events are having much worse impact on human life than in past times.

Many scientists will argue that climate change is not a new phenomenon, but rather it has been there since time immemorial. It is also true to say that our concern for the environment is a fairly recent phenomenon, not yet understood by many people. In a recent public event, a prominent Kenyan politician retorted: "what do trees have to do with rain?" At the recently concluded Copenhagen Conference, Africa argued that the continent can be faulted with only 3 percent of global emissions due to such activities as wood-fuel use, grass burning, charcoal production from trees and so on and that rather than be punished for imagined greenhouse gas emissions, the continent should be compensated for minimal CO2 production and lost future benefits.

The fears also for Africa point to a grim future if the predictions by scientists are anything to go by:  farmlands and fisheries will be destroyed, water and riverbeds, swamps and coral reefs too will be devastated. The continent just does not have the resources for coping, mitigation and adaptation and the compensation that is being sought is supposed to go towards these efforts.

African agriculture is already in trouble; the kinds of rain pattern changes that are being experienced can only do more damage to an already fragile rain-fed agricultural system. It is predicted that by 2020, in some countries, the already low yields could be reduced by as much as 50 percent. Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition. Jobs too will be affected and this is worrying for a continent where agriculture contributes between 10 and 70 percent of GDP. The only exception appears to be Egypt, which ironically is mostly desert. Egypt’s yields in agricultural production are expected to increase as temperatures increase. The situation is more worrying when one looks at individual countries. Broadly, much of the Horn of Africa will likely lose 94 percent of their agricultural production. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests from its research findings that climate change is responsible for  'more than one-third of the recent worldwide droughts'

The International Food Policy Research Institute has been consistent and persistent in its warnings that “agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for an estimated 65 percent of Africans. Yet one third of its population is food-insecure, and demand for basic foodstuffs is projected to double by 2015”.

A well known US writer has stated that it seems not right to “ leave the continent that has contributed so little to global warming, to have it suffer so much for it”.

I worry for my continent. Are we ready? We commend all those who were in Copenhagen to speak on our behalf.

I am particularly proud of Kenya’s own Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Mathaai for visibly and passionately representing the continent on the world stage. So what exactly was achieved in Copenhagen, apart from the activism, boycotts and hardline stands that we kept being treated to by the press?

The Copenhagen Accord: December 19, 2009:

  • Developing Nations will report every two years on their voluntary actions to reduce emissions. Those reports would be subject to international consultations and analysis”- a concession by China to the U.S.

  • Richer nations will finance a $10 billion-a-year, three-year program to fund poorer projects to deal with drought and other climate-change impacts, and to develop clean energy

  • They also set a “goal” of mobilizing $100 billion-a-year by 2020 for the same adaptation and mitigation purposes.

Let us now ask ourselves whether it is only money that Africa needs to be able to manage its climate change scenarios? In the industrialized countries scientists are at work, supported by their governments to come up with adaptation solutions. For example, green energy sources are being developed as Africa, save for Nigeria and one or two others, continues to rely on imported petroleum; scientists in the industrialized countries are working on new ways to produce food in an energy efficient and water saving manner as Africa still talks of organic agriculture which stands little chance of feeding a fast growing population; Africa’s food imports continue from countries which have adopted biotechnology and soon Africans will be forced to eat the very foods they have refused to grow; Africa is unable to tap energy from the sun which nature gave us so freely; and so on and so forth. This debate continues. African governments need to understand that it is only by supporting their scientists that they can come up with answers to the continental problems such as climate change and food security; and it is only by supporting science that they can qualify to sit and negotiate on the world stage because not only is it important to have astute politicians to negotiate, but such politicians need scientific evidence to support their arguments.

Ruth Oniang’o
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND

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