Global warming in Africa: The hottest issue of all

Any benefit from more aid to Africa will go up in smoke unless rich nations halt temperature rises that are robbing rainfall from a continent reliant on small-scale farming, write Michael McCarthy and Colin Brown
Click to follow

Bob Geldof, take note. All the rich nations' efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa will fail unless climate change can be checked, a coalition of British aid agencies and environment groups warns today.

Bob Geldof, take note. All the rich nations' efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa will fail unless climate change can be checked, a coalition of British aid agencies and environment groups warns today.

More favourable arrangements for African debt relief, aid and trade - the point of the rock star's forthcoming Live8 concerts and items on the agenda for the Gleneagles G8 summit - will count for nothing unless the effects of global warming are countered, say the development and green groups in a hard-hitting new report.

To combat climate change, rich countries must cut their greenhouse gas emissions further, far beyond the targets laid down in the Kyoto Protocol, they say. But more than that, aid policy for Africa as a whole needs a complete rethink in climate change terms, because the continent is uniquely vulnerable to climatic shifts, with 70 per cent of its people being immediately dependent on rain-fed, small-scale agriculture.

Aid needs to be targeted in a new way, they insist, and what will be vital in the future will not be big development projects, such as industrial-scale agriculture, so much as steps to make small communities more resilient in the face of potentially devastating rises in temperature or drops in rainfall.

The report, Africa - Up In Smoke? insists that Tony Blair's two issues for Gleneagles, African poverty and climate change, are inseparably linked, and that the first cannot be solved without dealing with the second. In essence, it is a frontal challenge to what one might call the Gordon Brown view of the problem - and indeed the Geldof view of the problem, for that matter - which is that if only the economic basis of African development can be properly sorted out by a properly responsible rich world, the continent will come good.

It won't, says the report - if we do not tackle the steadily warming atmosphere.

The report has been produced by a coalition of 18 aid and green groups, ranging from Oxfam and Action Aid to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which in a report last November broke new ground by recognising formally - for the first time, as far as the aid groups were concerned - that global warming is now the most serious problem facing the poor of the Earth.

In the past, the development movement has taken environmental issues such as climate change less seriously, with some senior figures - even up to ministerial level - seeing it as a side issue. But now the reality of a warming world, and its terrible risks for the people of the developing world, are being accepted.

In their new report, the campaigners say that the G8 nations have failed to "join the dots" between climate change and Africa and that unless global warming is checked, development gains will disappear.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says in the foreword: "It is important to understand that Africa and climate change are intrinsically linked, as climate change will affect the welfare of Africans for years to come." Western countries have a moral obligation to act over global warming, he says, as these wealthy countries have emitted more than their fair share of greenhouse gases.

The report details the impact that climate change is soon to have, or indeed is already having, across the continent.

It says the 14 African countries already subject to water stress or water scarcity will be joined by a further 11 nations in the next 25 years. Rainfall is predicted to decline in the Horn of Africa and some parts of the south by as much as 10 per cent by 2050, while the land may warm by as much as 1.6C, all of which is likely to affect the crop harvests for hundreds of millions of people.

If, for example, temperatures rise by as much as 2C, the report says, large areas of Kenya currently suited to growing tea would become unsuitable and the impact on Kenya's economy would be enormous. (Tea provides nearly a quarter of the country's export earnings.)

The sea level around the coast of Africa is projected to rise by 25cm by 2050, and the west coast, currently affected by storm surges and at risk from extreme storm events, erosion and inundation, is likely to suffer even more.

East Africa's coastal zone will also be affected: climatic variation and sea-level rise may decrease coral reefs along the continental shelf, reducing their buffer effects and increasing the likelihood of coastal erosion.

All these factors, the report says, call for a new model of development in Africa, in which strategies to increase human resilience in the face of climate change and the stability of ecosystems are central.

It calls for a new test on every policy and project, in which the key question will be: "Are you increasing or decreasing people's vulnerability to the climate?"

Above all, it says, there must be a new flexibility, and not a one-size-fits-all approach to development. "Just as an investment portfolio spreads risk by including a variety of stocks and shares, so an agricultural system geared to manage the risk of a changing climate requires a rich diversity of approaches in terms of what is grown, and how it is grown."

Present aid policy doesn't do this, the report says. Andrew Simms, the policy director of the New Economics Foundation, the report's lead author, said: "What hasn't been thought through at all is whether the development package attached to the proposed debt relief and increased aid-flows makes people more or less vulnerable to climate change.

"Minor enhancements of debt relief pale into insignificance compared to the negative impacts of global warming. Many places in Africa are overwhelmingly dependent on rain-fed agriculture and so they are vulnerable to even the early phases of climate change: any slight exaggeration of peaks and troughs of climatic extremes hits them instantly.

"In talks about trade, for example, there has been a lot of emphasis on the commercialisation of agriculture. But people have not thought about whether the development of luxury horticulture from the west coast is going to enhance the resilience of people in the face of massive shifts in climate, when what you may really need is a massive amount of support to small-scale agriculture."

The 18 charities, which together form the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, are united in their view that the issues of African development and global warming have to be linked - yet are not.

Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "Policies to end poverty in Africa are conceived as if the threat of climatic disruption did not exist." Nicola Saltman of the World Wide Fund for Nature added: "All the aid we pour into Africa will be inconsequential if we don't tackle climate change."

In a further indictment, the charities say most of the world's eight richest countries attending the G8 summit - including Britain - are already dragging their feet in paying aid to the Third World for climate change. The UK has pledged £10m to a special climate change fund, but so far has paid nothing. Japan, the US, and Russia - a signatory to the Kyoto agreement - have refused to offer any cash. Germany has promised €5m (£3.5m) but has paid nothing to the special fund.

In spite of the billions in aid promised by Mr Brown, the charities call for additional funds specifically for global warming and say that it could be cheaper to provide defences before countries are inundated. The report cites Mozambique which pleaded for aid to build coastal defences, but was under-funded. That left the world facing a huge disaster-relief bill after it was hit by floods.

The charities say they emerged from a private seminar with Mr Blair's officials feeling disillusioned about the failure of Downing Street to grasp the Africa-climate change agenda.

"The most depressing thing about it was that they took the view that it is simply not possible to talk about the two issues in the same breath. They said the media couldn't take it in and that it was too complicated," said one source. "We were flabbergasted. They just don't seem to get it."

Mr Simms said: "In terms of the policies adopted for debt relief, all these good intentions are flying blind when it comes to global warming.

"Unless they match their aid plans with more action on global warming, it will blow their words to the winds. You cannot make poverty history unless you stop runaway climate change."

'When ice falls from the sky, our income dries up'

Jack Karanga has not heard of global warming, the Kyoto Protocol or carbon emissions. But he remembers a hailstorm a few years ago that shredded the crop in the tea plantations around his home in the Kenyan highlands. His wife and three children went hungry that year.

"I normally work six days a week, from 7am till 3pm picking tea," he said. "On a good day, I pick 30kg and get paid 3.50 shillings a kilogram. Even that Ksh105 (75p) is not enough to pay school fees and buy my children clothes, but when the ice fell from the sky, I only had work for two days a week. It was a hard time."

Kenya is the world's biggest exporter of tea. Its cool, damp highlands and slightly acidic soil are the perfect conditions for tea growing, and international companies such as Unilever have set up factories that buy the leaves, dry them and then sell them at weekly auctions in Mombasa. From there, the tea is blended and sold in three of the world's biggest tea-drinking countries: Britain, Pakistan and Egypt.

Tea was grown commercially in Kenya by white settlers at the beginning of the 20th century but it proved so profitable and easy to grow that, by the 1960s, subsistence farmers were setting aside part of their land to grow tea for sale to tea factories built to buy from small farmers.Now, more than half of Kenya's tea exports come from these tiny farms, where whole families help pick the tea to pay for school fees and hospital bills. When the rains fail or hailstones destroy crops, this tiny source of income dries up.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that Africa will suffer more than the rest of the world from global warning.

And as temperatures rise, sea levels will rise, the moisture in the soil will evaporate, and the rainfall will become more erratic - crashing to earth in downpours that wash away crops. As the lowlands dry up, farmers will be forced to move into higher areas that are now covered with forests. The ensuing deforestation will lead to soil erosion and the destruction of some of the region's most important river channels.

Men such as Jack Karanga - who wakes up and looks at the sky each morning to figure out of the weather will be kind to him that day - will soon learn the hard way just what global warming means.

Meera Selva in Limuru, Kenya