Feeding Africa’s one billion: Addressing climate change challenges

Talks about climate change and food security in Africa have for long been dominated by politicians and activitists. Now African scientists look poised to take the lead in the quest for solutions.

In the bubbling city of Nairobi, Kenya’s nerve centre  of commerce and politics, the question of who is poor is often best answered by where you live, and for the likes of 38-year old Cikawa and his family of five, there is no asking which group they belong.

He works as a security guard in one of the big hotels in Nairobi’s main business district and lives in Kibera, the popular slum in the city, reputed as the biggest of its kind in East Africa.  Kibera is a multi-ethnic settlement that serves as home to Kenyans from all parts of the country as well as migrants from neighbouring countries.

Cikawa migrated to Kibera from Marsabit, a district in northern Kenya after a long spell of drought resulted in the death of his three herd of cattle.  “The herd was my inherittance from my late father but the most painful loss I suffered was my millet farm.  I borowed  consistently for three years to cultivate the farm and in those three years the yield wasn’t up to 50 per cent the money I invested.  I had to eventually sell the farmland to pay my creditors,” he said.

Cikawa recalls with nostalgia his childhood days, when he was rearing cattle with his father in a village near Lake Turkana, a lake in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya.  Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake and the world’s largest alkaline lake.  High evaporation rates of over 1,800mm against low annual rains of 250 – 750 mm have rendered many lakes in the Rift Valley including Turkana salty. Cikawa saw the Turkana shrunk in size over the years.

“Lake Turkana is disappearing. Cattles need fresh river water for drinking but even the humans that rear them don’t have enough to drink.”  He blames the drought in his homeland for the present misfortune of his family.  “Long before my father died, our stock of cattle had began to dwindle, and with that our financial fortune,” he recalls.  Cikawa knew the environment in Marsabit has changed a great deal, but he knows nothing about the science of climate change.

There are many people like Cikawa scattered across Nairobi’s informal settlements.  The average density of such informal settlements is 250 dwelling units (or 750 persons) per hectare compared to 10-30 dwelling units (or 50-180 persons) per hectare in middle and upper-income areas.    On aggregate, informal settlements occupy 5.84 per cent of all the land area of Nairobi that is used for residential purposes, but they house 55 per cent of the city’s population.

Settlements like Kibera remain the natural destination for many like Cikawa who the International Migration Organisation (IOM) describes as ‘environmental migrants’.  In recent times, they have come to be known by such other nomenclatures as climate change refugees, environmentally displaced people, climate refugees, and eco-refugees.  The UN says there are more climate change refugees across Africa today than those displaced by war and political repression combined.

According to the IOM, environmental migrants are “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

 The UN-Habitat’ State of African Cities Report 2010 predicts that Africa will cease to be predominantly rural by 2030 as more people more migrate from the rural areas to city centres for reasons key among which is climate change.

The UN-Habitat’ State of African Cities Report 2010 predicts that Africa will cease to be predominantly rural by 2030 as more people more migrate from the rural areas to city centres for reasons key among which is climate change.  The continent’s overall population is projected to reach 1.9 billion by 2050.  This massive growth in population will put pressure on basic infrastructure which at present is grossly in short supply in many African cities.

The report warns that climate change is equally causing a serious problem for cities in Africa.   Many of these cities like Nairobi in Africa’s east, Lagos in the west, Cape Town in the south and Cairo in the north, will have millions of new inhabitants – yet little or no internal food production capacity. Besides, with a number of these cities built by the sea, millions of people risk losing their homes in the coming decades because of coastal flooding.

According to Prof. Josephine Ngaira, director, School of Environmental and Earth Sciences, Maseno University, Kenya, slum dwellers in cities in East Africa pay five to seven times more for a litre of water than the average North American.  “Water scarcity will increase for both urban and rural populations in Africa over the next century. Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and longer droughts to the region.”

Ngaira, who was one of the speakers at the Africa Academy of Sciences (AAS) conference in Nairobi this month, stressed that prolonged drought in East and Central Africa is the immediate cause of the severe food crisis already affecting around 10 million people in parts of Kenya and Ethopia.  “40 billion hours are spent on water search annually in Africa.  This is huge loss of man-hour which otherwise would be put in productive activities,” Ngaira noted.

The Kenyan environmental scientist who reeled out compelling statistics at the conference to show the challenge that changing climate poses to Africa, noted that to keep up with the growth in its population, Africa will have to produce more food.  “Ironically, in many countries across the continent, a combination of poor farming practices and deforestation will be exacerbated by climate change to steadily degrade soil fertility, leaving vast areas unsuitable for crops or grazing.”

“Agricultural growth has been, and will remain, key to reducing poverty and hunger in Africa,” said Dr. Yemi Akinbamijo of the Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, African Union Commission.

The challenge of ensuring food security for Africa’s growing population in the face of such real challenges was the focus of the three-day AAS conference which drew leading scientists from across the various regions of Africa.  Figures made available at the conference indicate that climate change is expected to reduce agricultural yields in Africa by 20-30 percent by 2050.  To stop this, one thing the participants were unanimous about was that the continent’s food insecurity problem can only be solved by science-based solutions.

“Agricultural growth has been, and will remain, key to reducing poverty and hunger in Africa,” said Dr. Yemi Akinbamijo of the Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, African Union Commission.
“To significantly reduce poverty,” he noted, “Africa needs to sustain, broaden, and accelerate its recent growth performance and boost its investments in agriculture.”

Agriculture in Africa is predominantly rain-fed and hence highly susceptible to climate variability.  To this end, policy makers, he said, should drive intervention programmes that would make local farmers mitigate and adapt to climate variabilities.  In doing so, African countries should recognize: the critical nature of climate change adaptation and mitigation, the need for regional and trans-boundary cooperation and co-ordination, capacity building needs, and the need for ecosystem preservation, protection and rehabilitation.

“While mitigating climate change is the key long-term issue, adaptation is arguably the more pressing concern for African farmers,” he noted.  Climate smart agriculture, the AU scientist insists, is the only way to improved agricultural productivity in Africa. “Climate-smart agriculture is that which sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces greenhouse gases (mitigation) while enhancing the achievement of national/regional food security and development goals,” he explains.

Also speaking on the issue of climate smart agriculture, Desta Mebratu, Deputy Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Africa Regional Office, noted that African farmers can adapt to climate change by building resilience through improved land use, reduced deforestation and land degradation.   The science community, he said, needs to educate the local farmer that common practices such as bush burning, poses significant threat to biodiversity.  Across the continent, bush burning is widely used to flush out wildlife for bushmeat as well as clear farmlands for crop planting.

While most of the speakers at the AAS conference identified key challenges for science and African scientists in the quest to check the threats of climate change to the continent’s food security, it was the chief guest of the occasion and former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo who stressed what many deemed the difficult but important leeway to confronting the challenge.

“The problem with our scientists is that they shy away from relating with our politicians and yet they complain of bad policies.   All of your efforts in research and seeking solutions to our problems will amount to naught if you do not take the politicians along.  They make the policies and one wrong policy can throw a country 50 years behind.

You must make them understand the problems and make your solutions clear enough for them to understand.  Be patient with them when they are not following immediately but don’t neglect them. Some of them will come willingly, others may come slowly.  You just have to get them along, if you don’t, we won’t get there,” he stated.

Characteristic of what many say is a way of life, the over 50 African scientists who took part in the three-day intensive brainstorming exercise, tucked themselves away in Karen, a sleepy Nairobi suburb, far from the noise and hustle of the city centre as they challenged themselves on a new path for Africa’s growth and development.

Obasanjo applauded the choice of the theme of the conference ‘Climate Change and Food Security: The Road for Africa’ which he noted was quite timely coming a month ahead of the UN climate change meeting in Durban, South Africa.  “This is indeed the time for African scientists to rise to the challenge of defining the path for Africa in the increasingly complex but necessary debate on climate change.  Africa ought to be heard and ought to make its position clear and it is our scientists that must define that position not the politicians,” the former Nigerian leader said.

“The issue of climate change can never be over-emphasized given the challenges it poses to us as a continent.  The decision of the board of AAS to make it the theme of our 25th anniversary conference is based on this understanding,” said Prof. Berhanu Abegaz, Executive Director of the Academy.  “It is clearly in line with the vision of AAS to be the engine for driving scientific and technological development in Africa,” he added.

Climate change threatens sustainable development, social justice, human rights and equity.  Changes in the availability and quality of land, soil, and water resources, for example, are later reflected in crop performance, which causes prices to rise.   In the last few years, rising commodity prices, a growing population and a changing climate have combined to push food security to the top of the international agenda.

“I expect COP-17 to provide the opportunity for Africa to ensure climate change and the associated changes in climate patterns do not reverse development gains.  That’s why the wisdom of AAS in bringing all of us together here to deliberate on this issue ahead of the world climate summit in Durban next month, is commendable,” said one of the Ghanaian participants.

By Godwin Nnanna from Nairobi, Kenya
Email: cgsnnana@gmail.com

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