JUNE 17 OF EVERY YEAR has become an important date in the world’s calendar of events as a day set apart to mark the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. With this, the awareness on the perils the world is facing on climate issues is expected to gain more traction. The need to turn the degraded land that has lost its natural productivity due to human activity into healthy land is considered more urgent now than any other time before. The same goes with sustainable water management. In the early 90s, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) decided on a resolution to observe June 17 every year, and encouraged organisations and countries to organise events to spread awareness to combat desertification and drought. As the world marked the desertification and drought day on Thursday, several African countries were still struggling to tackle extreme water shortages while many farmers in Africa were lamenting over losses of crops on the farms and the deaths of animals on the field. Countries in the Southern Africa have not been faring well in climate matters and many of them risk permanent food crises that could result from inclement weather that make agriculture and food production very difficult. Hunger and malnutrition are therefore very likely to increase in the region in years ahead. More than 1,000 animals have reportedly died on a Northern Cape game farm over the last few months “as South Africa’s entire Kalahari region is being crippled by one of the worst droughts locals have ever seen,” a report lamented.
The existential threat posed by climate change and desertification is having a huge impact on Africa. The Southern Africa is particularly hard-hit, with recurring yearly experiences of droughts –sometimes alternating with floods – with food and water shortages. South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique have experienced various degrees of droughts or floods that have severely threatened food supplies and heightened hunger and malnutrition within the region. Zambia has been particularly prone to frequent climate shocks. The country’s increasingly unpredictable weather linked to climate change has upset the farming seasons, leading to lower yields and the risk of food insecurity. Agriculture, a sector that accounts for one-fifth of the Zambia’s Gross Domestic Product and employs about two-thirds of the workforce, is imperilled. Over half of Zambia’s population of 17 million people depends on domestic agricultural production for food supplies. For well over two decades, Zambia has been depending on food aid to bridge a significant gap and provide a proportion of the supply deficit. But in recent years, extreme weather conditions such as severe dry spells and floods regularly hitting Zambia’s rain-fed farmland hard, have threatened the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and raised the sceptre of the risk of food insecurity and have retarded the country’s economic growth.
The cost of droughts and floods for Zambia over the past three decades has been estimated at over $13.8 billion, according to recent estimates, approximated at four per cent of annual GDP. It has been projected that, over the next decade, the impacts of climate change could cost the country an additional $4.3 billion in lost GDP if immediate climate remedial actions are not taken. Madagascar, another country in the same region, has not been coping well with emerging climatic conditions. Within three consecutive years, the island country situated in the East of Southern Africa has entered deep depression, made worse by 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, further compounding the worst drought in a decade, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) which has been supporting half a million people living without food supplies in nine southern districts. The agency has reportedly appealed for emergency aid of $35 million to fight hunger in the south of the country. From the latest reports, 1.14 million people in Madagascar are projected to be food insecure from April to September 2021, with an increase to 1.31 million from October to December 2021. A neighbouring Angola has recorded 1.6 million people facing food and nutrition insecurity, exacerbated by abnormal dryness and drought which continue to persist in Angola and in east-central and southern Madagascar.
Zambia has to grapple with the challenges of food supply and the weather has not been helpful. In 2020, Fatma Sarsu, a Zambian plant breeder and geneticist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, was quoted as saying that “crop production in much of Africa, including in Zambia, is hindered by heat, drought, pests and diseases to the point where some farmers cannot grow enough food.” That is troubling. According to Sarsu, “increased drought in recent years and the effects of climate change are amplifying the challenges farmers already face,” to which he added that “developing improved crop varieties through plant breeding is one way to address this issue.” The reality of drought in the southern parts of Africa can be captured through the outlook of Kariba Dam, for which climate change and neglect has brought the reservoir to a record low, and perennial drought-induced power cuts have become a practice. In the process, the gargantuan structure at the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe has been brought to the brink of catastrophe. A recent report has shown that the “World Bank is providing $105 million to help secure the livelihoods of at least 300,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable households in Zambia, including women and girls, amidst the on-going shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of climate in the region is spreading widely and the ramifications are rapidly expanding. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 27.3 million people are reportedly facing high acute food insecurity between January and June 2021, including 6.7 million at emergency level while over 3.4 million children under -5 will suffer from wasting.
Protecting and restoring our natural ecosystems will boost Africa’s economy. One of the key areas of interventions is on water management. This may require joint efforts as in the partnership between UNICEF and the Global Water Partnership in Africa through which increased investment in climate-resilient water infrastructure can be done for greater good. From the joint efforts, international organizations are warning that, with increased changes in weather patterns and increased competition for water resources, water infrastructure in Africa is currently below the level necessary to ensure water security for people. And these have far-reaching economic implications. Fitch, a rating agency, has noted in September 2020 that water risks are likely to become a more important sovereign rating driver over the medium to long term, particularly in the event of severe climate change. Fitch Ratings found that countries in the Middle East and Mediterranean basin are particularly exposed to droughts and water stress while several South Asian and African countries are especially exposed to flood risks. Each sovereign’s vulnerability to water risks will ultimately depend on its ability to devise and implement mitigating policies.
According to Fitch Ratings, “a rising imbalance between steadily growing demand for water and deteriorating availability of reliable supply has already placed large swathes of the world population, mostly in emerging market countries, in a situation of water stress. This is likely to intensify in affected regions and expand to new areas, as economic and demographic growth continues to drive a rise in demand while climate change puts further pressure on supply, exacerbating the uneven global distribution of water resources. We find that Middle Eastern and North African countries such as Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia are particularly exposed to drought and water stress risks, based on Fitch’s composite water risk indicators, which incorporate measures of current country exposure to water risks as well as of projected climate change under the intermediate emission scenario RCP4.5.”
Africa’s future remains grim if things continue as they presently are without significant positive interventions. The situation may even worsen with time as population pressure increases the pressure on the environmental resources, especially forests and water resources. Exploiting them without proper control may create more environmental crises. The best way to plan the restoration and water conservation is to immediately stop the process of desertification, much of which is going on in the Southern Africa. Soil fertility needs to be maintained through tree planting. If this is well implemented, it is expected that other remedial steps would fit in. However, irrespective of any part of the world, it has been observed that, too often, water crises occur because societies don’t take action until it is already too late. Fitch Ratings added that “climate change is also likely to lead to higher incidence of destructive droughts and floods. We find that exposure to flood risks is high for Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam, and sub-Saharan African countries, including Benin, Mozambique and Rwanda.” The ratings agency has disclosed further that, “under our sovereign rating framework, we aim to capture water risks through their impact on structural features, macroeconomic performance and public and external finances. In recent years, water risks have featured as a subsidiary sovereign rating driver in the context of negative rating actions on several emerging countries across regions, mainly through their impact on economic growth, amplifying challenges from other sources. Countries where droughts or floods have been mentioned among challenges to growth, external finances and/or inflation in the context of a negative rating action include Morocco (March 2020), Namibia (June 2020), Sri Lanka (December 2018), Thailand (March 2020), Uruguay (October 2018) and Zambia (April 2020).”
The works of Fitch Ratings have put the water and climate issues into clear economic context. Fitch believes the rating “impact of water risks will increase over the medium to long term. Countries with strong institutional and policymaking capacity are more likely to adopt mitigating policies and be able to minimise the effect of mounting water risks. Intensifying water risks will have increasing implications for economic growth, as they are likely to lead to drop in agricultural yields in some regions and cause global shifts in production, affecting some agriculture-dependent economies in harm’s way of adverse water trends. A close energy-water nexus will contribute to spillovers to the other sectors of the economy. Water risks can also affect public finances by raising spending pressures and generating contingent liabilities for sovereigns. They can catalyse domestic social tensions by affecting income distribution and food security. Pressures on common resources in transboundary river basins and aquifers could lead to geopolitical conflict or crises, although cooperation remains the norm for resolving water disputes.”
Africa has good reasons to take climate issues very seriously and to embark on urgent interventions. Restoring degraded lands is expected to bring economic resilience, create jobs, raise income and food security. Access to real-time climate information, weather-based insurance, and use of drought-tolerant crop varieties are a part of the wide spectrum of solutions. There are many more. But the Africa of the future cannot afford to continue to lean on humanitarian support for survival. Something drastic needs to happen. Africa’s climate issue must be addressed head-on and with a keen sense of urgency. The future of the continent depends on it.