We are hearing more and more often that our planet is reaching a tipping point. Climate change, and associated biodiversity loss, is no longer just an inconvenient truth; it is a catastrophic reality that will impact all of us. But already today, some parts of the world are facing extreme weather conditions that are impacting their livelihoods, perpetuating existing economic and social inequalities.
While a lot of Western countries are not currently on the firing line in terms of climate change impacts, the same cannot be said for a lot of developing countries. This is the case with the region of East Africa where climate change is already having severe and possibly irreversible impacts on local populations. And while these countries might be thousands of miles from where we live it would be a dire mistake to ignore what is happening there.
Climate change is a global phenomenon and as temperatures increase we will all soon experience the impacts of climate change. So, what is happening now in counties of East Africa should be a clear alarm bell for everyone to fight climate change.
What makes East Africa vulnerable to climate change?
The truth is that the climate of East Africa has been more fragile compared to other regions; for example, it is more prone to droughts, desertification and floods. These weather events have compounded socioeconomic inequalities: for instance, in the late seventies and eighties, droughts caused widespread famine and economic hardships in many countries . The particular risk that a lot of East African countries are face is that climate change can further complicate and compound the existing challenges of African populations.
African populations are already suffering from economic and social inequalities in terms of lack of food, absence of sanitation and overall poverty. Future climate change may lead to a change in the frequency or severity of extreme weather events, potentially worsening existing inequalities.
To be more specific, future climate change will lead to increases in temperature and rise of the sea level rise, as well as and changes in rainfall. This will impact all economic and social sectors in the region, possibly affecting agricultural production, health status, water availability, energy use, biodiversity and ecosystem services . Many countries in Africa depend on tourism for their main source of income while others are mainly agricultural and rural economics. Their natural environment therefore plays a key role in their wellbeing.
And while a lot of this may sound like theoretical projections and future scenarios, local populations in East Africa as well as sustainability organisations operating in those countries are already seeing the changes. For example, Dr. Walaga Charles, Executive Director of Uganda’s Environmental Alert, confirms that there have been more unpredictable rainy seasons, particularly shortened rainy seasons with crop failures. In the long-term, he predicts that rainfall will in general increase with climate change, but the regularity will also change which will lead to more flooding .
But the changes in weather patterns are not the only impact of climate change. Of particular concern are increases of animal diseases and pests due to increases in temperature. For example, a leaf disease called coffee that is devastating to susceptible coffee plantations used to be common in warm areas of Uganda but is now being found in new regions of the country while the same is being observed with malaria.
Finding solutions in science and education
Countries like Uganda are more than aware of the issues and have developed a climate change policy and an implementation plan. They are seeking the support of international organizations such as the United Nations and the Global Environment Facility. What is more, Ugandan universities are performing research on climate change and are incorporating climate change into the curriculum. In particular, agricultural schools are developing climate change centres .
Needless to say, Uganda is not the only country afflicted. According to a recent Oxfam report, nearly 11 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are dangerously hungry and in need of humanitarian assistance – all aggravated by climate change . These countries are already facing the disastrous effects of climate change and this is supported by scientific evidence too: monthly average temperatures in countries of East Africa have hit nearly 3 degrees Celsius above the average between 1940 and 1981.
What is more, seven of the last 10 years have seen droughts caused by poor or failed rains in the region [3,4]. And these droughts had an impact on human life: the 2010/11 drought saw up to 260,000 people starve to death. During that famine, women reportedly bound their waists with rope to deaden the pangs of hunger as they gave what little food they had to their children.
The sad truth is that had we had a bit more forethought years ago, had we worked a bit harder to decarbonise our economies and transition away from fossil fuel towards renewables, we would have not only saved money for ourselves but we could have averted some if not most of the environmental and humanitarian crises that countries such as Uganda, Somalia and Kenya are facing today. This is not a time to be complacent. The Paris Agreement was signed just over a year ago; we must work together to make it work. We cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes in the future.