27 November 2007

Africa: Climate Change Threatens Continent

Cape Town — The carbon emissions of developed countries threaten to devastate sub-Saharan Africa in the coming decades, says a major United Nations report issued today.

This year's Human Development Report, commissioned by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), says if the world does not act against climate change within 10 years, a two-degree Celsius temperature increase could:

  • generate massive agricultural losses, of up  to U.S. $26 million by 2060, a figure higher than all the bilateral aid to the region in 2005;
  • make an extra 600 million people go hungry; and
  • spark new and more frequent epidemics of mosquito-born diseases such as malaria and Rift Valley Fever.

"The poor – those with the lightest carbon footprint and the least means to protect themselves – are the first victims of developed countries' energy-rich lifestyle," says Kevin Watkins, lead author of the report, in a press release issued with the report.

In the short term, the effects of climate change could be "apocalyptic" for the world's poorest people, say Kemal Dervis, administrator of the UNDP, and Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme.

And in the long term, the phenomenon is "a massive threat to human development… In some places it is already undermining the international community's efforts to reduce extreme poverty."

The report, entitled "Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world," cites specific examples of how climate change affects Africans.

In rich countries, people react to its effects by "adjusting thermostats, dealing with longer, hotter summers, and observing seasonal shifts." In the Horn of Africa, it says, "crops fail and people go hungry, or … women and young girls spend more hours collecting water."

Children born during droughts are more likely to be malnourished or their growth stunted. In Ethiopia and Kenya respectively, children aged five and under are 36 and 50 percent more likely to be malnourished; in Niger children aged two or less were 72 more likely to be stunted.

Rising sea levels might be countered in cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and New York, the report continues, but "coastal flood defences will not save the livelihoods or the homes of hundreds of millions … living in the Niger or Nile deltas."

The report notes that Texas in the United States, with a population of 23 million, produces more carbon emissions than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, with 720 million people.

Africa, it says, "has the lightest carbon footprint but is likely to pay the heaviest price in the coming century for human-induced climate change."

The report says action on climate change needs to start with developed countries, but also makes suggestions for Africa's governments:

  • Expand meteorological monitoring networks to give farmers better information about climate patterns;
  • Improve social insurance to protect farmers and poor urban residents from the worst effects of climate-related disasters. The report cites a Zambian pilot project which pays $6 a month to families in the bottom 10 percent of the economy;
  • Invest in early-warning systems, such as Mozambique's early warning and rapid-response mechanisms following floods in 2000; and
  • Countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, which have high rainfall concentrated in a few weeks of the year, should invest in water-storage or "water harvesting" facilities.

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