Climate change: What is at stake for Africa?

Africa bears little responsibility for climate change, says Rachel Odengo, but the continent is bearing the brunt of its effects. It’s time for an equitable arrangement that will help poor countries adapt to global warming.

The twelfth conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC COP 12) is being held in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, from 6-17 November 2006. Delegates from more than 180 nations are gathering to discuss climate change – one of the biggest challenges facing the human race. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Africa will be the continent most impacted by global warming – and human activity is largely responsible. But what role will Africa play in the talks?

Almost all African countries have signed and ratified the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. But the continent is still poised to suffer worst from the impacts of climate change. Campaigners are holding world governments responsible for not taking adequate measures to reduce their levels of greenhouse-gas emissions. A failure to act on emissions is already adversely affecting many countries in Africa, resulting in water scarcity, drought, persistent floods and other terrible consequences.

This year, Kenya experienced a period of extreme drought. Thousands of people lost their property and some lost their lives. The country has barely recovered from the terrible floods of 1997, but meteorologists say that El Niño floods may hit in the New Year. The snowcaps of Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro are melting at a rate unprecedented in history, leading to local water shortages. Malaria has also increased in highland areas, where it was not prevalent before.

The Turkana region of northwest Kenya – some of the most dry and inhospitable territory on earth – has felt the brunt of climate change’s effects on Kenya. The Turkana people are pastoralists whose way of life is adapted to the harsh environment. They are constantly on the move in search of waterholes and available pasture on which to graze their animals during the dusty nine months between one rainy season and the next. The rainy season, known as the akipiro, may arrive any time between the months of March and June. But this year, the akipiro has not been sufficient to allow for the full regeneration of pasture and the replenishment of waterholes. Gzahegn Kebede, Oxfam’s chief programmes manager in Kenya, says most communities in northern Kenya do not have the capacity to cope with abnormal weather conditions. “Drought has been more damaging to households in northern parts of Kenya than any form of protracted conflict,” says Kebede. When it rains, serious flooding can be disastrous for people living on drought-parched land.

A recent forum of Kenyan civil society groups argued that African countries are suffering the consequences of “luxury emissions” from industrialised countries, while they are still far from achieving industrialisation themselves. Grace Akumu, from Climate Network Africa, says: “At the [UNFCC] conference we do not want diversionary measures. When Africans are dying because of luxury emissions emanating from industrialised countries, we want serious business.” She adds: “It is a question of life and death.”

There is much to be done to make a more equitable agreement on climate change. Discussing the implementation of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which is supposed to advance sustainable development and equality for poor countries, Akumu feels Africa has been let down. “Africa had only five [CDM] projects by September this year, while the remaining 500 projects are in Europe and the other developing countries in Latin America and Asia,” she says. Akumu argues that African governments should take the lead in opposing similarly inequitable development programmes.

One of the key UN Millennium Development Goals is to halve the world’s population of people living in hunger by 2015. But there are fears that this could be made impossible by climate change. Global warming’s main culprits should provide resources to help the societies that will suffer the most to adapt. But the responsibility should not just lie in the hands of rich nations. As Jesse Mugambi of the World Council of Churches argues: “Our climate is in crisis; it is our survival but also our responsibility. Despite the role that should be played by industrialised countries, it is our responsibility to deal with the problem of global warming that is with us.” Mugambi says that any agreement following 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol’s term is up, should involve special funds to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change. He says that helping with adaptation is not a question of charity but one of equity. Since developed countries have been able to achieve growth at the expense of others, it is only fair to compensate the poorest who are suffering as a result.

Andrew Pendleton of Christian Aid told me that British campaigners are putting pressure on the UK government to compensate poor countries for the damage done by greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised countries. “Tony Blair needs to put his money and policies where his mouth is,” says Pendleton. He adds that industrialised nations should support the development of clean, low-carbon technologies in poor countries.

Despite efforts made to engage Africa in climate politics, there is little in terms of implementation of climate-change measures on the continent. African countries should now take the lead in according climate change its rightful importance in the public sphere.

Rachel Odengo is a reporter for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation