Is Africa Ready?

The evidence for climate change is overwhelming. It has been reconfirmed by successive international studies and reports over the last two decades. Catastrophic climate change, which will threaten our entire ecosystem as we know it, is possible, though not yet probable. It is likely to happen if we do not change course and continue to ignore the evidence before our eyes: escalating temperatures will cause a big rise in sea level and the release of methane from the tundra will take us towards a tipping point where living creatures are unable to adapt to the changes fast enough.

But even the more conventional scenarios, which many are beginning to consider optimistic, will have very far-reaching effects. The consequences of those levels of climate change are generally well understood and widely accepted. The rise in average temperature is just one of the aspects of climate change. Climate change is also likely to include much greater variations in climate phenomena, including droughts and floods, as well as more frequent and severe weather events, such as hurricanes and storms, and greater seasonal variability from mild and severe winters to dry and very wet summers. Especially in Africa, growing seasons will be shorter in practically the entire continent, with few small areas affected in a positive way.

Against that background, Africa will suffer far more than most other regions. It is particularly galling that Africans, who have contributed least to climate change, are the ones who will suffer most from it.

By any ethical measure, some compensation is due.

Africa's ability to cope is constrained because its governance is weak. However, there are shining examples in Africa that deserve our plaudits and our support: The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, for example, has recognized outstanding leadership from Mandela to Chissano and from Masire to Moghaye -- and there are many more. But despite stellar performances in some countries and areas, the overall conditions in many parts of the continent are marked by fragile economies and weak institutions, particularly susceptible to external shocks. Low levels of achievement in education and health coexist with widespread AIDS, malaria and other diseases that claim countless lives. Poor infrastructure and limited communications all mean that the ability to compete internationally is limited. Governance is problematic almost everywhere. Institutions are infected by the cancer of corruption. Societies are riven by tribalism and strife, and in many parts of Africa this has spilled into outright war and complete anarchy, as evidenced from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lack of stability and capital constrain the ability to undertake the projects needed for development. Lack of managerial and professional ability limits the effectiveness of many projects that are undertaken. Brain drain is severe in most parts of the continent.

Within such a context, the impact of climate change will be devastating. It will exacerbate existing problems and add new challenges to institutions and societies neither organized nor equipped to confront them. From rising sea levels threatening coastal cities and salt water spilling over into deltas, to the necessity of coping with intermittent droughts and floods, to rapid urbanization and the spread of endemic diseases, the governments and peoples of Africa will have much to contend with. I will focus on only one aspect of the coming crisis here: food security.

Food Security -- What To Do

Africa is already a chronic food importer. All scenarios point to Africa remaining food deficient, something that the pattern of climate change is likely to exacerbate. Most of Africa's agriculture is rain-fed, though the continent consists of huge deserts, arid and semi-arid zones and is suffering from the impact of desertification. Even in tropical zones, rainfall is quite variable from year to year, and since farmers are very poor, they are unable to survive successive droughts. Lack of infrastructure and proper rural roads makes it equally difficult to bring assistance when it is needed or market bumper harvests. Post-harvest losses are enormous, mostly due to inadequate infrastructure and storage, as well as the abundance of pests.

Climate change has increased the vulnerability of poor farmers in rain-fed areas, as well as the populations that depend on them. Special attention must be given to the production of more drought-resistant, saline-resistant, and less-thirsty plants that reach maturity in shorter periods. Better sustainable land and forest management should be used to replace slash and burn approaches, while research should focus on increasing productivity in the complex ecological systems of smallholder farmers. This kind of research should be treated as an international public good and supported by public funding, and its results made freely available to the poor. Such an investment will reduce the need for humanitarian assistance later on. Indeed, such a productivity increase must be fast enough for prices to drop, which will increase the accessibility of available food to the urban poor at a time of rapid urbanization throughout Africa. And it must be achieved by increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers so as to raise their incomes, eventhough prices drop.

Research can also improve the nutritional qualities of food crops, as was done to increase the vitamin A content of rice. Forestry, as well as marine and freshwater fisheries, also require attention. More high-risk research also deserves support. For example, exploring the biochemical pathways of mangroves which enable them to thrive in salty water could open the possibility of adding this capability to other plants.

Additional research is needed to develop techniques to decrease post-harvest losses, increase storability and transportability, and increase the nutritional content of popular foods through biofortification. Many of the food insecure live in urban areas, and these measures would help them.

Because it is impractical to seek food self-sufficiency for every country, we need to maintain a fair international trading system that allows access to food and provides some damping of sudden spikes in the prices of internationally traded food and feed crops. We need to convince rich governments to maintain buffer stocks and make available enough food for humanitarian assistance, which will inevitably continue to be needed in various "hot spots" around the world, mostly in Africa.

A call to Action

It is shameful that the world which adopted the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half the number of people who suffer from hunger by 2015, should see these numbers rise. It is shameful that in this productive and interconnected world a billion people go hungry. We know that many of these poor souls live in Africa, and with climate change adding to the severity of challenges on this continent, special attention is needed by the whole world to help Africa address this problem. But African problems will require African solutions. The respected elders among Africa's former leaders, such as those who won The Mo Ibrahim Prize should call on their colleagues to set aside current differences and work together and with other countries and institutions in order to achieve some, if not all, of the actions listed above.

Africa, where humans first walked erect on this planet, will not fall to its knees. African talent -- with a little help from a caring and nurturing world -- will ensure that it can rise to meet the challenges of climate change.