Africa: Climate Change Spells Disaster for African Agriculture - Unless We Adapt

interview

Johannesburg — In the next 50 years, the world's population is expected to increase from six billion to nine billion. At the same time the planet they must survive on is under pressure; the number of people living in poverty is increasing, health crises like HIV/Aids are worsening, forests are being depleted, cultivable land is over-crowded. On top of such existing problems, must be laid the irrefutable fact of climate change, a factor likely to impact heavily on human survival.

For many the problems of food and water security loom largest among the planet's many seemingly intractable problems. Among them is Dr Mahendra Shah is a leading economic analyst based at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. Born and brought up in Kenya, he has worked for several international bodies, including the UN and the World Bank, in roles ranging from delivery of urgent emergency relief to longer term, in-depth economic planning.

Last year, Shah co-authored a report entitled "Climate Change and Agricultural Vulnerability," prepared for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, in August 2002. The 160-page report reviews data for all the world's countries and predicts the impact of climate change on agriculture using various models to project forward eighty years. Akwe Amosu asked him how Africa's food production was likely to fare.

You believe that climate change will have dramatic consequences for African agriculture. What are they?

Sub-Saharan African countries are vulnerable economically, socially and environmentally as things stand. Most of their populations are in agriculture. They rely on agricultural exports; they are at the mercy of the world trade market.

Given this vulnerability, on top comes climate change. There are five major models of climate prediction. Now if you look at any of the climate change models, we find that Africa suffers in the sense of extreme temperatures well as extreme precipitation.

To take one example, climate change in 2080 will result in the arid area in Africa increasing by some 10 percent; 180 million people live in this zone at the moment, and the livelihood of the future populations in this zone will be threatened.

At the moment sub-Saharan Africa has 200 million under-nourished people. With strong and rich economies, you can cope with climate change. But even if economic growth is high, in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, progress will be slow because of the tropical resource base, an environment where climate change impacts will be substantial, and in a demographic situation where the population in this region is projected to increase substantially in the 21st century.

There is great concern, especially for countries such as Mozambique and South Africa, which will substantially lose agricultural potential due to climate change. In the case of South Africa, as much a half. On the other hand, countries such as Kenya and Uganda are winners, in the sense that they will be able to benefit from increased production potential.

So we have something like fourteen countries that gain production and fourteen countries that lose. The problem is that the fourteen countries that lose carry the mass of the population in sub-Saharan Africa. And this is very worrying.

What sort of time scale are we talking about here?

Our study analyses in annual increments from the year 2000 to 2080. I think the interesting point to look at is 2020 because of the global targets for halving poverty by 2015. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, no matter what level of economic growth (as high as over 4% per capita annually as projected by one of the IPCC future world scenarios), even the highest economic growth you can imagine will not affect the number of the under-nourished.

Let us just take one country so that we can really get a picture of what this might mean for a population. Take Mozambique, one of the "losers" in your survey. Tell us what's going to happen to Mozambique in the next fifty years if the present trends of climate change continue.

Well first, Mozambique has a population of 18 million and in the next fifty years it will rise to twenty-eight million. Mozambique has $100 per capita GDP at the moment. It has been affected by drought and floods every alternate season and will potentially lose 25 percent of its food production on currently cultivated land.

The irony is that Mozambique has not itself contributed to climate change because it only produces 0.1 tons [of carbon dioxide emissions] a year, compared to the developing countries' average of two tons and an OECD average of 11 tons.

Mozambique is rich in land resources and if the water can be tapped it will be rich in water resources. But at the moment it's at the mercy of flood controls from the neighbouring countries and of course.

This country has the potential. It needs to work with other developing countries to find technology that is relevant to the Mozambique situation and really make a sustained effort, because you cannot run or take shortcuts.

In other words, they have to try and adapt immediately, from here on.

Absolutely. They have to adapt.

Isn't it very difficult to make these projections? I mean there are so many factors to be taken into account. How reliable is your data?

Well, first of all, this information comprises of two parts. The agro-ecological potential, which tells you the production potential in your particular country; that is based on six to seven hundred person-years of scientific work.

Secondly, we have integrated this data into a world trade economy framework -there's not been any ecological-economic integrated study at all in the world which has carried through a study on a level platform.

For example, the Unites States has done a detailed study of the U.S. using the best data. And they use the same general circulation models of climate change that we have used for all the countries for this survey. If you have a level platform, it enables you to compare who wins and who loses on a level playing ground. And that's extremely important.

So the results of this study are available for each country. What needs to happen is that each individual country needs to ask for the methodology and the database and then use their own detailed data to analyse what are the options for them

From what you've been saying, although the millennium goal is to halve poverty by 2015 with all the associated problems that poverty implies, you are saying that that's unachievable, regardless of what happens.

It's unachievable, regardless of the levels of economic growth in the next two decades. What we need are specific targeted programs, not for relief aid all the time, but to give the vulnerable people the means to build their livelihoods sustainably. So all programs need to identify in each country the vulnerable populations and the options. So it needs to be a really absolutely targeted approach to the under-nourished.

But knowing what you know about levels of growth in African economies, and knowing also about the difficulties about mobilising resources and getting coherent responses to poverty and hunger problems, what's your gut feeling about whether we could address the problems, even with that targeted approach?

I think the present situation is worrying. Climate change will make it more difficult and really it is essential that we take an in-depth look at the technology that is necessary.

For example, supplementary education needs to be pushed, because there are water-scarce areas; we need to look at the semi-arid areas, the livestock situation. Sub-Saharan Africa because of its link with the world market and the need for exports cannot do it alone. It needs partners. But at the same time we need the political commitment, the commitment to agriculture.

If you go to Nairobi, if you to Lagos or you come to Pretoria, the weakest lobby in the political arena is the agricultural lobby. They have no voice. And women farmers who represent well-over half, have no voice at all.

We need to give respect to agriculture. It reminds me on the day of India's independence, when the first Prime Minister Nehru said "everything can wait, except agriculture." We need to recognize this because if you look at the currently developed countries they've developed with agriculture as a foundation. We have little else. Let us build our economies on agriculture and give it the respect it deserves.

But from what you say, this isn't a problem that can successfully be addressed with a gradual, 'slow and steady' approach. There's not much time. When you mention technology, what does bio-technology offer Africa in this situation?

I think the first thing that needs to happen is that developing countries need to recognize the importance of climate change adaptation. This is not on the international agenda yet and it is the developing countries that must see the urgency in putting it on the agenda.

Then mitigation - the Kyoto protocol - is important. But it must be complemented by adaptation.

When you say mitigation, you mean the attempts by countries, particularly the OECD countries to bring their emissions down?

Well, all the countries of the world need to bring their emissions down. But remember the climate change of the next fifty years is already here. What we need to do is to bring emissions down so we can reduce the risk of climate change in the second half of the 21st century.

But at the same time, adaptation is not on the international agenda. If it's put on the agenda, one of the key things which will be required will be agricultural research and the question of relevant, safe biotechnology in Africa is important.

But the question is, who is going to develop it? Major international corporations do not have an interest in this, as it is technology for the poor.. And it's the governments within Africa that need to combine their efforts and see which area of biotechnology needs to be looked at in the first phase. At the same time it is not just biotechnology. We need to use the best of agricultural science, including traditional knowledge. So it's a long and sustained effort, it will take us twenty to thirty years to come up with the first new crop varieties that can adapt to climate change. If we do not wake up now, thirty years hence it will be too late.

A PDF version of the report, "Climate Change and Agricultural Vulnerability" can be viewed at http://www.iiasa.ac./Research/LUC/JB-Report.pdf

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