Climate Change

Climate disruption

Global warming has compromised Africa's ability to feed its population. It's time African nations adapt to the changing scenario

By Vijeta Rattani
Published: Thursday 31 August 2017
Displaced people gather at an artificial water pan near Habaas town of Awdal
region in Somaliland in April 2016. As East Africa reels from the worst drought in
a century, scientific studies show the impact of drought is more severe because of
climate c
Displaced people gather at an artificial water pan near Habaas town of Awdal
region in Somaliland in April 2016. As East Africa reels from the worst drought in
a century, scientific studies show the impact of drought is more severe because of
climate change (Photo: Photo: Reuters) Displaced people gather at an artificial water pan near Habaas town of Awdal region in Somaliland in April 2016. As East Africa reels from the worst drought in a century, scientific studies show the impact of drought is more severe because of climate change (Photo: Photo: Reuters)

Something strange is happening across East Africa. The region, which receives rainfall twice a year, is reeling from the worst drought in a century. Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda, which boast of rich agricultural lands, have received below-average rainfall for the third year in a row. This has caused food prices to skyrocket to record levels, doubling the price of staple cereals in some areas, and exacerbating the acute food insecurity prevailing over most parts of the continent. "Over the past six months, severe drought conditions have contributed to the displacement of more than 700,000 people within Somalia, 300,000 in Ethiopia and over 41,000 in Kenya,” says Jemal Seid, Director, Climate and Geospatial Research, at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.

In some places camel carcasses are being stacked up as even the world’s most robust animal has not been able to survive this persistent drought. High number of people at the risk of starvation prompted South Sudan, a largely water-surplus region, to declare famine in February—the first such declaration anywhere in the world since 2011. In March, the World Health Organization warned that Somalia is at the risk of third famine in 25 years. According to the UN, 12 million people in the region are now dependent on humanitarian aid.

The persistent dry conditions are partly linked to the Indian Ocean dipole, which is similar to El Niño weather phenomenon in the Pacific and pushes away the moist air that brings rain to East Africa. But scientific studies show that the severity of the problem is due to changing climate. “The impacts of current and recent droughts in East Africa are likely to have been aggravated by climate change,” notes the 2017 report by Oxfam, an international confederation of charitable organisa tions focused on the alleviation of global poverty.

The latest Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in 2014, had warned of such an eventuality in Africa. Over the past century, temperatures across the continent have soared by 0.5°C or more, with minimum temperatu res rising faster than the maximum temperatures. Higher temperatures result in greater evaporation, causing soil moisture depletion, reinforcing drier conditions and intensifying the impacts of failed rains, noted the IPCC report. According to the 2016 report by Berlin-based policy institute Climate Analytics, summer monsoon rain, which brings maximum precipitation to East Africa, has decreased in recent years due to rapid warming of the Indian Ocean. These changing climatic conditions pose the third whammy for a continent, already struggling with the need to feed more and more people and rising food import bill.

“Climate change has compromised Africa’s ability to feed herself,” says Oscar Magenya, chief research scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, Nairobi. “Climate change affects many physical and biological systems, disrupting growing seasons, fluctuating plant and animal ranges and resulting in the emergence of virulent pests and diseases,” Magenya explains. In Sahel, for instance, most farmers depend on rain-fed crops. But these days rains do not last long enough to grow a full crop. This shrinking rainy season is affecting food security and exacerbating malnutrition in the region. In an April report to IPCC, experts have said that in some countries, yields from rain-fed crops could be reduced by up to 50 per cent by 2020.

Recurrent droughts is fuelling desertification. Sahel region, which alternately experiences wet and dry seasons, has been suffering from drought on a regular basis since the early 1980s. As a result, says Peter Tarfa, acting director of the climate change department under Nigeria’s environment ministry, semi-arid Sahel is not only fast turning into a desert but also encroaching on northern Nigeria, affecting farming and pastoral activities in the region.

While there is no study to link climate change with dwindling water resources, the fact is the Congo, the world’s second-largest river, is experiencing a 50 per cent drop in its water levels. Lake Chad has shrunk by nearly 90 per cent since 1963. A prolonged drought could affect large parts of the shoreline of Lake Victoria—the world’s largest tropical lake and the source of the Nile—which depends on rainfall for 80 per cent of the water. This would destroy fish breeding grounds and traditional agriculture, putting millions of lives at risk. In West Africa, as rising sea levels redraw the shoreline and ocean acidification damages coral reefs, fishing and agriculture that form the foundation of livelihoods suffer a blow. The coast accounts for 56 per cent of the region’s GDP.


What countries across Africa are experiencing is nothing unusual in this age of Anthropocene. Then why does the continent bear the insurmountable loss and damage? Munich-based reinsurance company Munich Re offers an explanation. While climate change is a global problem, its impacts are unevenly distributed, with poor and developing countries bearing the maximum brunt. The impact of natural disasters is much greater on developing countries—currently 13 per cent of their GDP—than on rich nations, where it is 2 per cent, according to Munich Re. There is also a disparity among different parts of the developing world. While Asia is highly exposed to natural disasters, Africa is most vulnerable to its impacts. According to the Natural Hazards Vulnerability Index by risk analysis and research company Verisk Maplecroft, nine of 10 countries found most vulnerable on the index are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Analysis by Down To Earth shows that climate change impacts are more pronounced in Africa because of a few reasons. One, agriculture is largely rain-fed and underdeveloped; two, 90 per cent of the farms are small yet contribute to 80 per cent of the total food production; and three, a majority of the farmers have few financial resources, limited access to infrastructure and extremely limited access to weather and technological information.

Source: Impact of climate change on African agriculture by CGIAR published in 2015

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), in developing countries the agriculture sector, including crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry, absorbs 22 per cent of the economic impact caused by natural disasters. But in Africa, the sector only adds to the impact. Africa’s crop and livestock losses caused by natural disasters in 2003-13 were US $26 billion. Kulthoum Omari, Coordinator, Adaptation of African Agriculture (AAA), a 27-nation coalition, cites the enormity of the problem: “About 80 per cent of people in Africa depend on agriculture for their livelihood and sustenance. Therefore, boosting agricultural activities will have a positive impact on local and national economies in Africa. However, this is being hampered by the impacts of climate change.”

The latest IPCC report also states that climate change is worsening the already deplorable state of agricultural systems in Africa. The white paper on the initiative for the Adaptation of African Agriculture (AAA) to climate change, presented at the Marrakech UN Climate Change Conference in 2016, says the continent has 500 million hectares of severely degraded land—this accounts for 27 per cent of the world’s total degraded soils. The paper cites water erosion, chemical degradation and soil compaction as the prime reasons for land degradation. Further, about 66 per cent of African lands are located in arid or semi-arid areas, and suffer from water shortages. Due to uneven distrib ution of water resources, around 25 per cent of the population faces water scarcity, especially in North Africa and the Sudano-Sahelian region, and only 2 per cent of arable land is irrigated in Africa against 42 per cent in Asia, highlights the white paper.

Worse, Africa is least prepared to tackle weather-related risks. Two-thirds of its countries have little or no capacity to manage these risks. According to the AAA white paper, there are only 781 synoptic weather stations (that collect meteorological information every six hours) in Africa as compared to 1,696 synoptic weather stations in Asia. Besides, Africa is the world’s lowest consumer of improved agricultural inputs, such as seeds resistant to heat, drought or diseases. Though some farmers are adopting climate resilient agricu lture, such attempts are limited to certain pockets. For instance, farmers in Bankass district of Mali are infusing vigour to the degraded soil by growing trees as well as staple food like millets on the same farm. In Northern Ghana, several non-profits are sensitising women farmers about the effects of pesticides on food crops as well as soil.

There is an urgent need to replicate such initia tives across the continent as extreme weather will significantly disrupt the agricultural calendar and affect crop yields and livestock production.


Going by the latest IPCC report, changes in average temperature would be greater over northern and southern Africa and relatively smaller over central Africa. This means, Sahara and southern parts of Africa would get warmer in coming years. Extreme precipitation changes, such as droughts and heavy rainfall, that eastern African has been experiencing more frequently in last 30-60 years, is likely to batter the region in future.

By 2080, arid and semi-arid areas could expand by 60-80 million hectares. Viable arable land is predicted to decline, with 9-20 per cent becoming less suitable for agriculture. Suitable land for corn (maize) and beans—staple crops in the continent—could reduce by 20-40 per cent. Conversely, sorghum, cassava, yam and pearl millet could show little loss, or even gains, in the area suitable for production. Western Africa appears to be a highly vulnerable region, where suitable land for maize, sorghum, finger millet, groundnut and bananas are likely to reduce by 10 per cent.

This will impact crop productivity. A study by international research firm CGIAR predicts that because of climate change, maize yield could reduce by 22 per cent, groundnut by 18 per cent, sorghum and millet by 17 per cent and cassava by 8 per cent. Banana production could also decline in western Africa and in the lowlands of eastern Africa. In arid Egypt, production of paddy would decline by 11 per cent and that of soybean by 28 per cent by 2050.

While rising sea levels will affect fisheries productivity by 50-60 per cent, substantial reductions in forage availability in some regions would alter productivity of livestock. It is projected that at temperatures above 30ºC, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry reduce their feed intake by 3-5 per cent for each 1°C increase. These impacts will have varying effects on the millions of African farmers who depend on livestock for incomes and food security. “Temperature changes also have a much stronger impact on yields than precipitation changes. It is clear that the economic cost of natural disasters in agriculture sector is expected to increase because of climate change,” says Tarfa.

An estimation by the UN Environment Progra mme (UNEP) shows that African countries would face 2-4 per cent annual loss in GDP by 2040 due to climate change. However, there will be a strong regional variability in the degree of loss experienced in the agriculture sector. FAO estimates that parts of Sahara would suffer the maximum agricultural losses, followed by western and central Africa and northern and southern Africa.

To increase climate resilience among farmers, several African countries have introduced novel adaptation initiatives. In fact, 50 of the 54 African countries have made these initiatives part of their climate action plans submitted to the UN Frame- work Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). One such initiative is the establishment of African Risk Capacity. The specialised agency of the African Union aims to help member states improve their capacities to plan, prepare and respond to extreme weather events, and thereby improve food security and vulnerability of their populations. The other initiative is setting up Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise (ACRE), the largest agricultural index insurance programme in sub-Saharan Africa in which the farmers pay a market premium. The programme now spans across Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. A similar insurance programme in Ethiopia allows farmers to pay the insurance premium through labour. But implementation of these initiatives is still a challenge.

Says Omari, “Many African countries still lack comprehensive disaster risk management plans because of reasons, such as lack of guidelines, insu fficient capacity at the regional, national and sub-national levels to assess and address loss and damage, and insufficient research in understan ding the scope, magnitude and character of the climate risks and impacts.” Magenya says unless countries prioritise and integrate climate change programmes into their development plans, the effects of climate change on agriculture in Africa are likely to persist. Seid says there is an urgent need to integrate solutions offered through technologies, institutions and government policies to manage the risks of drought and climate variability in Africa.

There is also a need for the international comm unity to safeguard agriculture from climate change impacts. The Paris Agreement, the landmark climate change deal that came into force in November 2016, talks of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change in the preamble. But the word agriculture finds a miss in the Agreement.

Too much water in drylands
Sahel will see floods in the future, followed by droughts

In the past few decades, the semi-arid tropical Savanna region Sahel, stretching from Mauritania in the west to Eriteria in the east, has seen several devastating floods. The Niger floods of 2010 and 2012 are two such deluge witnessed at Niamey weather station since record keeping began in 1929. In 1995, 1998 and 1999, five, eight and 11 countries in the region were hit by heavy rainfall respectively. A 2008 study by the University of South Wales and University of Ghana suggests that Sahelian countries "lay to rest the desertification narrative" and "consider the possibility of both floods and droughts, and mobilise local memory for anticipatory learning and practical adaptation". That suggestion has gained much relevance over the years, with the IPCC report predicting that high-intensity rainfall events could increase by 20 per cent over the next decades.

Scientists attribute this weather anomaly to global warming. As the surface temperature of the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Mediterranean Sea in the north increases, more water evaporates. The moist air drifts onto land, where vapour is released as rainfall. A study by climate scientists at Potsdam University, Germany, and Columbia University, US, shows moisture flux from the Atlantic into Sahel will increase more strongly than from the Mediterranean by the end of the 21st century. "We looked at 30 climate models to understand projections of summer rainfall in Sahel. Out of those, seven models showed a doubling of average summer rainfall by 2100, including three models that project an increase of over 100 per cent in average summer (July-September) rainfall across the central and eastern Sahel," says Jacob Schewe, co-author of the study. The increase in rainfall is also attributed to a northward shift in West African monsoon circulation dynamics. "West African monsoon, which generally covers the region between latitudes 9° N and 20°N, tapers off as it moves further north. But in future, it can make inroads into new territories," says Schewe. What explains this shift is the fact that the northern hemisphere has been heating up faster than southern hemisphere since 1980, largely because the former has more land and less ocean, and greenhouse trapping is larger over land than ocean at the same temperature.

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