Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

In Africa: Not Guilty, but paying the price Add to ...

It's one of the most painful ironies of climate change. Africans are the world's poorest people and have contributed the least to industrial pollution, yet they face the greatest suffering from the changing climate.

While sub-Saharan Africa contains 12 per cent of the world's population, it is responsible for just 2 per cent of greenhouse gases. Africa produces only 1/20th as much carbon dioxide as the United States on a per-capita basis, yet it is the world's most vulnerable region. As the planet warms, droughts, floods and food shortages are likely to ravage the land with increasing frequency.

Studies suggest an additional 250 million Africans will be affected by water scarcity by 2025. Malnutrition will rise and armed conflicts will increase as Africans fight over scarce food. And an additional 90 million Africans will be exposed to malaria by 2030.

That's why the Copenhagen conference is placing a huge emphasis on "adaptation" - financing from wealthy countries to help the poorest adapt to drought, erratic rainfall and rising sea levels. Sources say Ottawa is already drafting a short list of African countries to receive Canadian funds to help them adapt. However, the process of adaptation in Africa is already under way.

Predicting the spread of malaria

On the snowcapped slopes of Mount Kenya, as in other African highlands, malaria was unknown in the past. But as the climate warms up, the snow has disappeared from the mountains - and malaria-carrying mosquitoes have moved up Mount Kenya and into other high-altitude regions, putting millions of people at risk.

Temperature data is "the most revealing and compelling" indicator of the spread of malaria in the highlands, Kenyan researcher Andrew Githeko found. He discovered that a 0.5-degree increase in average temperatures since the 1970s has led to an eightfold increase in malaria cases in western Kenya. Similar links between malaria and climate change have been found in Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia.

A new project, with help from Canada's International Development Research Centre, is trying to refine weather data to predict malaria. Researchers have developed a prediction model that can detect an epidemic up to four months in advance. They collected malaria data from a dozen East African hospitals and matched it against local climate records, allowing predictions to be made.

Under the latest three-year project, with a $245,000 contribution from Canada, the researchers will develop a detailed map of existing malaria zones and new zones, improving their predictive ability. They will train health-care workers to prevent expected outbreaks by distributing mosquito nets and spraying mosquito breeding grounds.

How to avoid the $100 chocolate bar

Almost three-quarters of the world's cocoa is produced in West Africa. Yet the changing climate has become a serious threat to cocoa farmers. In Ghana, the land area where cocoa can be grown has shrunk by 40 per cent since the 1960s. Climate change is jeopardizing cocoa by causing more disease, more bushfires, declining soil fertility and a shorter lifespan for cocoa trees.

One expert, John Mason of the Nature Conservation Research Centre in Ghana, predicts the decline in cocoa- growing land will fuel a sharp rise in global prices. A chocolate bar could cost as much as $100 within 20 years, he says.

Yet cocoa itself is contributing to climate change, since many farmers are chopping down the canopy of trees that gives shade to cocoa. Farmers traditionally believed that cocoa grows better in direct sunlight. But with climate change, they are finding that the sun is too harsh on their crops.

Mr. Mason and another Ghana-based environmentalist, Rebecca Asare, are working on schemes to encourage cocoa farmers to preserve their trees or plant new ones. They are hoping to tap into the carbon credits offered under new international agreements to those who preserve forests.

How elephant dung can save the planet

Africa's vast forests are a crucial source of help for the global climate, pulling millions of tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere every year. But rapid deforestation is a major contributor to atmospheric greenhouse gases. And Africa is losing its forests at twice the pace of the rest of the world, with a third of its forests already destroyed.

Because of poverty, 80 per cent of Africans rely on wood or charcoal for their household fuel.

In Tanzania alone, about 3,300 square kilometres of forest is being chopped down every year to produce charcoal. Uganda has lost half of its forest cover in the past 30 years, much of it for charcoal.

Innovative small-scale projects in East Africa are replacing charcoal and firewood with fuel briquettes produced from sawdust, waste paper, corn cobs, banana skins - even cow and elephant dung.

One project, led by Cheryl Mvula, has trained 200 women in five Kenyan villages to make briquettes from dried cow dung and other waste material, using low-cost presses.

Since the project began in March, the villages have reduced their firewood collection by 75 per cent.

They are also selling briquettes to safari lodges, replacing the traditional charcoal fuel.

The project will expand to five more Kenyan villages next year and has also been introduced in Zambia. "It's been more successful than I expected," Ms. Mvula said.

Too little rain - and too much

The farmers of the Western Cape are crucial to the South African wine- and fruit-export industries, employing more than 200,000 workers. But the farmers have been buffeted by climate change, beginning with a series of painful droughts from 2000 to 2005. Since then, the rain has been erratic.

Unusual deluges, with up to 200 millimetres of rainfall in a single night, have wreaked havoc in the orchards and vineyards.

Andre Thops, who grows olives and grapes, says he had to stop growing tomatoes because of unpredictable rains. He covers his vineyards with sheets of plastic to prevent the harvest from rotting after unexpected rainstorms.

Raymond Koopstad, another fruit farmer, says the erratic rainfall has forced him to treat water as a precious commodity.

He has switched to a drip system of irrigation, training his workers to check for leaks in every pipe, and makes compost from fallen branches and straw, which he spreads below his trees to preserve moisture. "You don't throw away any raw material now," he says.

Organizations such as Canada's IDRC are working on projects aimed at providing better climate forecasts to the farmers of the Western Cape so that they can manage their water resources and adopt better techniques.

Camels, droughts and floods

The most vulnerable Africans are the poorest: those who subsist on a few crops on tiny plots of land, or those who roam over vast territories with herds of animals.

The farmers of northern Ghana, for example, have endured a devastating series of droughts and floods in recent years. In some cases, a drought has resumed within a month of a heavy flood, leaving farmers both homeless and hungry.

Relief agencies such as CARE International are helping Ghana's farmers to diversify their livelihoods and develop new farming techniques.

Some are varying their crops, with sorghum and maize in the highlands and rice in the low-lying areas, to improve their chances of surviving a flood or drought.

In Ethiopia, pastoralists are diversifying their livestock, acquiring drought-resistant animals such as camels and goats.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories