Africa, Colonialism, and Climate Change

In 1963, the OAU (Organization for African Unity) determined that the blueprint for a future Africa emerging out of the vestiges of colonialism depended on strong government control. Ironically, the idea was borne from the experience of the very colonial governing practices African countries were trying to rid themselves, and the idea was supported, perhaps predictably, by many Western economists at that time. Certainly, politicians liked the idea of greater government control and intervention as they tried to move their countries towards industrialization – another idea adopted from the colonial rulers. Traditional economies that had been founded in agriculture no longer held an appeal, and were seen as incapable of producing the level of productivity as well as fuel the demands of urban growth and “import substitution” (replacing imports by developing local manufacturing for domestic markets).

For many African leaders, the answer was to be found in socialism. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of an independent Ghana and a devout supporter of Pan-Africanism, said, “Ghana inherited a colonial economy… We cannot rest until we have demolished this miserable structure and raised in its place an edifice of economic stability, thus creating for ourselves a veritable paradise of abundance and satisfaction… We must go forward with our preparations for planned economic growth to supplant the poverty, ignorance, disease and illiteracy left in the wake by discredited colonialism and decaying imperialism… Socialism is the only pattern that can within the shortest possible time bring the good life to the people.”

Nelson Mandela, in “Long Walk to Freedom”, “I subscribed to Marx’s basic dictum, which has the simplicity and generosity of the Golden Rule: ‛From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.’”

Mandela had long felt warmly towards, among other systems, the idea of Marxism, as he explained in his sentencing speech on April 20, 1964: “Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There was no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.  It is true, as I have already stated that I have been influenced by Marxist thought. But this is also true of many of the leaders of the new independent states. Such widely different persons as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and Nasser all acknowledge this fact. We all accept the need for some form of socialism to enable our people to catch up with the advanced countries of the world and to overcome their legacy of extreme poverty. But this does not mean we are Marxists.”

At the time, the Soviets seemed to have produced a rapid modernization and the establishment of communal ownership of land, collective decision-making, networks of social obligation – all considered by African leaders as positive aspects of socialism. African traditional social society, as Mandela suggested, is deeply rooted in these concepts. The idea of developing personal wealth was not part of the traditional African construct, but as foreign capitalists converged on the continent, Africans started to want their own wealth, and socialism became little more than a vague and romantic notion used as a convenient label, mostly by governments as they pursued a capitalist-based economy.

The difficulties the countries faced as they emerged into independence were made even more daunting by the environment: droughts proved catastrophic. Since around 80% of the continent’s population was involved in the subsistence agricultural sector, difficult to access healthcare and education, combined with the lack of rainfall and often a harsh climate resulted in the spread of diseases among all living things – human, animal and plant.

As Africans started seeing personal wealth as a desirable goal, the desperate lack of skilled labor and the high levels of illiteracy, halted many dreams before they had a chance to be realized. To add to these issues, the rate of population increased to a point that strained government services beyond capacity. Between independence and 1980, the population of the continent tripled.

Millions, desperate as a result of land shortages and poverty, and attracted by the potential of building wealth, migrated to the urban areas putting even more pressure on cities and their governments.

The urban population across Africa grew faster than anywhere else in the world, and with governments’ limited access to money, poor infrastructure, no or limited access to running water and sanitation, slums and squatter camps were an inevitable product of growth.

At the time of independence, less than 10% of the entire continent’s population earned a wage.

African politicians and their people had little experience with democracy – representative institutions was a concept introduced by the colonial powers, and the way they were managed left an indelible impression on independent states that governments should have all the answers, and that politicians could wield enormous personal power. With their historical, traditional background of paternalism and autocracy or ruled by a tribal chief, the lack of success in newly minted, independent states should not be surprising.

By the 1980’s, the dramatic decline – so steep it was generally referred to as the “lost decade” – saw country after country grappling with crippling debt, crumbling infrastructure, an erosion in pay to civil servants: all factors leading to a growth in public sector corruption that by the time conditions started improving, was entrenched culture in many places. Qualified people left public service, many joining the ‘brain drain’ to work abroad. A survey of 20 low income African countries in 1995 revealed that half had 25 or fewer fully qualified accountants in their entire public sector.

Economies failed, the middle class became impoverished, wage earners in urban areas sought subsistence wages in the informal trade sectors and home-based industries.

Former national and ethnic pride that had accompanied the heady days of independence changed into resentment towards the state and its agencies.

The developed world, apparently only just discovering that Africans had no idea it was Christmas, began to pay attention as various pop singers and entertainers lay claim to roles that ran the gamut from wanna-be saviors to opportunistic career moves, and many around the world looked at their old atlases and discovered that a mighty land mass lay in the middle of everything. It took even longer before the significance of that position would dawn on anyone. The “dark continent” started to see pinpricks of a spotlight as people’s curiosity grew.

Celebrities in the 60’s and 70’s had romanticized places like Morocco, but it was only in the 80’s that they started becoming aware of the rest of the continent and the various predicaments that it faced. Those efforts were greeted with general cynicism by Africans who wondered what had taken them so long and some hesitation that this would just be the second coming of colonialism.

And even more slowly the realization that the poverty experienced by millions, the wars and other violence, were not entirely as a result of poor government, which had been the more popular meme by many in the west, some of whom still thought of the continent as one homogenous mass, rather than a collection of 58 very different countries.

This second “discovery” of Africa brought attention to the continent as the hub for what was another growing concern by the west – climate change.

Globally, previous efforts at raising environmental awareness had usually been greeted with derision – “Prince Charles talks to his plants!” (long before it was cool thing to do), and the abundance of “tree huggers” who clamored for the latest in tasteless soy products: “It tastes just like nothing until you add turkey flavor!” – and the world was off and running to the one place that appeared to be the hub of this new awareness/trend. Africa.

“…A closer look at the forces guiding Africa’s desert wilderness revealed less random chaos than structured order, less anarchy than a natural and even rather beautiful dictatorship.” - James Workman, from Heart of Dryness


Many of the colonial borders are drawn along rivers – when those start drying up, swallowed by erosion, drought, and sun, transnational boundaries become sources of tension between countries.

James Workman, from “Heart of Dryness”: “Peace drives development, which requires water, which demands governments to claim their fair share from border-crossing rivers. Post-apartheid South Africa now sought half the Limpopo River, upstream Zimbabwe grabbed the Shashe River, and Zambia prepared to dam the Zambezi. Angola could soak up 98% of the Okavango, which originated in its own country, while Namibia might divert and harness whatever was left for its own thirsty capital. Every drop a rival withdrew deprived Botswana of its lifeblood, and soon the country’s usually peaceful citizens and leaders spoke openly about killing and dying for water.”

But, as Jamie Workman says in my interview with him for the MIPJ OR podcast 13-02 and elsewhere in this Journal, water wars are more likely to happen within a country between its citizens.


And everything – the sunlight, the air, the diversity of the continent’s life forms - is governed by water.

The Kalahari Desert was once a fresh water lake so vast and so deep it had own weather system. That was 2 million years ago, but earthquakes and heat had turned the mighty southern African plateau into a seasonal swamp. Between the Okavango and Lake Chad, farmers and cattle ranchers had flooded into the area, turning swamp, mudflats and rivers into dust.

The Sahara Desert grows at around 30 miles per year. Sandscapes expand across Africa, Asia and America by alarming degrees. Each year, China loses about the size of the state of Rhode Island to desert.

Plants lie dormant, animals migrate, and those that cannot reserve moisture, adapt to a new lifestyle that requires less water, slower metabolism and revolutionary methods of conserving energy. But at least half the dust that keeps bringing the desert to us comes from Africa, so the impact of climate change in Africa is felt globally.

Theoretically, global warming should result in a wetter world, yet for many, it’s getting hotter and drier, with even tropical regions seeing the driest conditions in centuries.

Largely due to the lag in global attention, the world will be warmer by 0.6C degrees by the end of the century.

Crippled economies and growing poverty made it even more difficult for strained governments to react to devastating droughts like the one that impacted the Sahel region between 1968 and 1973.  The Sahel stretches from the west coast of Senegal and Mauritania, to the east coast of Sudan and Eritrea, covering more than 3 million square kilometers and a population of around 50 million, mostly in semi-nomadic tribes.

Over the last 50 years:
Temperatures in the Nile Basin regions rose between 0.2°C and 0.3°C per decade in the second half of the last century.
Rwandan temperatures increased 0.7°C to 0.9°C.
Annual mean surface air temperatures are expected to increase between 3°C and 4°C by 2099, roughly 1.5 times average global temperatures.

Projections in East Africa suggest that increasing temperatures due to climate change will increase rainfall by 5 - 20% from December to February, and decrease rainfall by 5-10% from June to August by 2050, with little benefit to agriculture because of its sporadic nature, and largely delivered in violent thunderstorms.

Further south, in northern Nigeria, production of the staple crop of groundnuts dropped from 765,000 tons before the drought to 25,000 tons by the time the drought started to loosen its grip.

The drought also impacted Lake Chad. The largest water source in the region, supplying water to Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger was around 25,000 sq km in 1963, but by the time the drought let up, it had shrunk to about one-twentieth the size and split into two parts, with only the southern section maintaining a permanent body of water.

The Volta river system cuts through Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ivory Coast, and Tonga, supplying water to around 30 million people.  With almost 40% of the basin’s economic activity agriculture-based, any changes to the water supply could be devastating. According to climate change models, the temperatures in the Volta Basin could increase by up to 3.6 Celsius in the next century, with an average decrease in rainfall of around 20%, with potentially greater losses through evaporation due to those higher temperatures.

Global warming continues to affect Africa’s coastal regions, as well. The expansive coastline creates employment for millions. Warmer sea temperatures, extreme weather and an increase in sea level not only affects populations living along Africa’s coastline, but will result in the destruction of coral reefs, which are crucial for coastline protection, having a direct bearing on settlements and their ability to provide fish stocks, leaving coastal dwellers with little alternative but to migrate.  

This sea change will also threaten the vast mangrove ecosystems along eastern and western Africa. Mangrove forests protect coastal zones from floods by acting as sponges –  they trap water during heavy rainfall, and then release it slowly into streams, which lessen the severity of floods and maintain stream flows during dry periods.

Along the eastern shores of Ghana, for example, changes in ecosystem function in the aftermath of the damming of the Volta River resulted in the mass exodus of people to other parts of the country. The resultant shortage of labor in source areas and pressure on limited natural resources in destination areas resulted in many undesired outcomes.

Rural people perceive climate change in the form of rainfall variability – timing, quality, quantity, predictability, delayed onset, shorter rainy seasons, reduced number of rainy days, frequency of heavy rainfall days, prolonged dry spells. Adaptation strategies used in the Sahelian region include building anti-erosion dykes to reduce run-off, the “zai” technique, which is also applied in the Sahelian zone, involves planting of crops in small, circular pits perpendicular to the slope to capture rainwater and retain soil moisture (Brown & Crawford, 2007; ECOWAS-SWAC/OECD 2008); and improved land clearing technique which involves leaving of tree stumps and trimmed shrubs and small tress to facilitate fast re-growth (ECOWAS-SWAC/OECD, 2008).

Because of the erratic weather and rainfall patterns, it is increasingly more difficult for farmers to plan their planting season. They follow rain clouds, stars and birds. While their knowledge of meteorology may be comparatively unsophisticated, they can identify the particular chirp of a bird heralding rain.

Because of the unpredictability, farmers are frequently re-ploughing and replanting different crops when their traditional crop withers and dies prior to harvesting. When food production is that uncertain, social structures start to become vulnerable.

African countries are still largely importers of food, cereals accounting for between 25% (sub-Sahara) - 50% (North Africa) of those imports. Climate change will undoubtedly affect food prices, and as a result, food insecurity and accessibility as well as food utilization, the ability for a person to receive essential nutrients from the food they consume. A warmer planet also brings the threat of new diseases, pests, water-borne diseases in flood-prone areas, and an inability for humans to adapt fast enough to these new threats to the food chain.

The sub-Saharan region is one of the most vulnerable globally, with the highest proportion of malnourished population, a significant percentage of whom are dependent on agriculture, and where, most of the available water resources are used for agriculture processes. The farming techniques are relatively primitive in what is a very arid part of the continent, and smallholder systems have limited ability to adapt.


As the decades moved on, agriculture was the beneficiary of huge sums from the World Bank and other development aid. By the 1980’s, the winds had started to shift as the people grew tired of the corruption, the debt, the falling living standards, and the vast ship of a continent started to correct course.

Commodities like oil and cocoa beans saved some countries from ruin, but the drive towards industrialization was hampered by governments taking out massive loans to deal with the environmental crisis. And many governments, ignoring the fact that 4 out of 5 of their people were engaged in agriculture, used that industry to finance industrial development, paying farmers a fraction of what they would have earned on the global markets. The policies were not only because of their drive towards industrialization - with a burgeoning urban population, a lack of infrastructure and opportunities would present a situation far more conducive to civil unrest than angry but isolated farmers.

Africa, with its massive labor force in the agricultural sector, cannot afford the potential malnutrition, susceptibility to disease, and decreased capacity to utilize their food.

 At the World Food Summit in 1996, the definition of food security was explained thusly: the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.

Bioconversion is a low cost commodity that could well be an effective source of food. One of the more interesting suggestions coming from the UN on food security is a report published earlier this year that suggests rearing millions of common houseflies on human faeces, abattoir blood and other waste, and to then grind them up to be used as animal feed, reducing the pressure on forests and oceans.

Bugs have long been a staple in the diet of many around the world. Nigerians consider chocolate-covered bees a treat, while anyone visiting a luxury safari in South Africa will be served butter-friend Mopani worms (which, incidentally, fetch a higher price on the market than beef). The crunch of insects is hardly limited to Africa. Indonesians and Chinese and even Italians have been known to munch down on insects over the centuries. They’re far cheaper to raise than cattle, and a lot lighter on the water supply, as well as not producing the levels of methane that ruminants do.

Changing the way we approach nutrition globally could well inspire Food Network to do a show on June bug popcorn, or cicada-stuffed tortillas.

African farmers are still largely resistant to US methods of agricultural production, including being skeptical of Genetically Modified seeds. They are well aware that US farming processes have resulted in some of the country and the world’s largest pollution problems.

There is, as Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC put it, a fragile nexus of food, water and climate. The threat to human life is not just tragic, but has historically shown to lead to conflict.

An increase in global warming brings more droughts, floods and violent storms, and when subsistence farming is the lifeblood of the people, the erosion and encroachment of sand, the washing away of fields, and lack of water for irrigation, let alone consumption, leaves an already vulnerable population exposed and without the possibility of recovery.

With a lack of food and opportunity to grow one’s own food, to develop a sense of personal wealth through the local agricultural sector, combined with a lack of running, potable water, the stress of survival, the increase in hunger and disease, presents a desperate picture.

The Obama administration has developed “Feed the Future”, a global initiative to reduce hunger and improve food security, which helps farmers increase the number of trees as well as restoring overgrazed and degraded land. It remains a relatively unpopular program among donor countries and organizations. Despite the efforts being supported by local farmers, large contributors still prefer expansive and expensive attention-grabbing efforts that can satisfy their donor base, rather than achieving lasting solutions on the ground. 

Greatest benefits in food insecure regions are likely to arise from more expensive adaptation measures including the development of new crop varieties, preferably adapted on the continent for their specific needs, and uptake of new technologies including, for example, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, all of which requires substantial investments by farmers, governments and development agencies.

In small market and subsistence farming, most of the food crops are grown under rainfall conditions and will be highly vulnerable to future changes in soil conditions and water availability. By contrast, commodity crops are more typically dependent on irrigation to maintain yields. This might buffer the impacts felt by small production farmers, but even irrigated commodity crops are at risk with a warming planet.


  • The Sahara Desert, one of the driest places on earth, affects snow and rain in the western USA.

  • Decades of drought in Africa were partially caused by pollutants emitted by US and Europe.

There is, in some quarters, the opinion that American efforts like the Clean Air Act and other regulatory legislation mostly passed in the 1970’s, are no longer necessary. Regulations and regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are too “big government”, that private industry is responsible enough to regulate itself.

Recent studies have shown that those very regulations, far from simply regulating US-based industries, have had a profound effect on environmental conditions in Africa. In a paper published 2013 by the University of Washington in the journal “Geophysical Research Letters”, researchers showed that through the 3 decades up to the 1980’s, coal-burning factories in the US and Europe spat tiny particles of sulfate-rich, light-refracting aerosols into the atmosphere, producing more reflected sunlight and more reflective clouds, the result of which was to cause rain patterns to shift away from Africa, bringing drought that resulted in over 100,000 deaths during those 3 decades.

The long term effects of the Clean Air Act are now being studied, and show that as US factories cut sulfate emissions, the rainfall patterns in Africa returned to historic levels. Regulating carbon dioxide has been having much the same effect.

Interestingly, the aerosol pollution was masking the rate that the northern and southern hemispheres were being affected by climate change, with the North warming faster due to its greater landmass, but the cooling patterns created by aerosol pollutants had been balanced by increasing the carbon dioxide-related greenhouse effect.

In 2011, a team of scientists from University of California-San Diego, and members of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which studies the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere), studied particles suspended in the clouds over the Sierra Mountains, and came up with a startling revelation: dust, soot and even germs had blown in from the Sahara Desert, mingling along the way with pollutants from China and Mongolia, before hitching a ride on the winds across the Pacific.

The heavy snowfall days in the mountains also traced to the most particles in the clouds, leading to the belief that dust, bacteria, and even viruses, can spur the formation of ice crystals in clouds that then leads to snow- and rainfall.


The progress shown by Africa since the “lost decade” is considerable, but climate change looks to threaten those advances. Economists have predicted GDP losses of around 14% as a direct result of climate change if adaptation measures are not implemented and the results of global warming in Africa, more than anywhere, are directly linked to looming humanitarian crises. Agriculture, still a major source of the continent’s livelihood, with 70% of the population dependent on agriculture for survival, is especially vulnerable because many of the countries are already too hot. Where countries are unable to rely on non-agricultural industries like oil and cocoa, the concern of increasing poverty is as great as it was back in the 70’s.

When it comes to food security, women play a pivotal role in natural resource management and ensuring nutrition. Climate change is proving to have a much more severe impact on Africa’s women, including the potential increase in infectious diseases. While men usually manage livestock and cash crops, around two thirds of women work in subsistence agriculture, dependent on rain-irrigation, and with less access to infrastructure, knowledge, and resources.

Despite being the primary care-givers, in many places women’s right to land is restricted because of tribal and/or statutory law, so most are relegated to farming on substandard or degraded land. All this makes it exceptionally difficult for them to develop adaptive techniques to improve their lot and thus they shoulder a much larger burden in terms of food insecurity. This affects their own and their children’s education in the short- and long-term, creating a vicious cycle of poverty no country can truly afford.

Competition increases as people migrate from deeply affected areas to places that have better resources, and the demands on water, food, energy, and improved infrastructure, will impose greater stress on those areas, as well as governments, many of which still struggle to cope with the migrations of previous decades.

Migration brings with it the potential for greater human rights abuses and inter, or intra-state conflict.

While migration is almost entirely within national borders and involves more men, women are gradually increasing their mobility, but it is largely driven by livelihood-related needs, instead of seeking better education, or work opportunities. As a result, many families never get the chance to break out of poverty.

Just as many countries experienced in the 1970’s, urban migration is taking place in large numbers again, and it is also as a result of environmental changes as many men are leaving the agriculture sector and moving to urban areas in order to find a way of making a living. This puts further strain on governments, unable to meet the expensive demands of a much-needed city infrastructure.

Longer dry seasons are already driving African farmers to migrate to locations with better moisture conditions and higher soil fertility. This is currently being experienced in parts of some Sahelian countries where farmers have to internally migrate from the drier areas in the north to the wetter areas.

The “Where The Rain Falls” initiative set out to study human migration patterns related to climate change and found that the highest incidents of migration were in areas where the rainfall was most erratic and farmers were only able to produce only a single harvest each year, whether through environmental conditions, lack of education, or poverty.


Food security.jpg

From CARE report “Understanding rainfall, food security and migration” by KEVIN HENRY:

“…The initial application of the agent-based model in Tanzania showed that migration of vulnerable households is sensitive to changes in rainfall and that out-migration in that location could double in the next 25 years under an extreme drying scenario. By contrast, migration by less vulnerable or ‘contented’ households was found to be much less sensitive to changes in rainfall patterns.

Four different household profiles emerged from analysis of the research data. These ranged from households that are able to use migration to increase their climate resilience, by making successful moves to either areas where growing conditions are more favourable or urban centres or industrial estates with non-farm employment opportunities, to those ‘trapped’ populations unable to use migration as either a short-term coping mechanism or long-term adaptation strategy.

We found wealth, land ownership, dependency ratios and education to be important characteristics in determining whether or not households were able to use migration to increase resilience or, conversely if migration was either not possible (‘trapped populations’) or constituted an erosive coping strategy (i.e. one which increased vulnerability to future shocks or prevented households from escaping poverty)….”


Ironically, Africa’s total contribution to global climate change is at most 5%, yet it is the hardest hit and most affected, and is already experiencing devastating losses in livelihood as well as water sources, land, and biodiversity.

The US and China are still the world’s largest polluters, but since neither country is part of the Kyoto Accord, they manage to avoid taking real responsibility to cut carbon emissions to levels agreed to by signatories. Realistic cuts by US, China and the EU are desperately needed if the world wants to avoid the looming catastrophe destined to be the next century’s most serious crisis.

So, what is Africa doing while waiting for the leaders of the guilty nations to act?

Could Africa actually become the world leaders in global science?

Could the continent lead in forcing the oncoming train onto a different, slower track?

Higher education has always been a challenge – with fewer than 5 million students in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and 2/3 of those are in South Africa. But despite this, there is very real, serious work being done in science, technology, mathematics and astronomy.

In South Africa, the SKA Project (“Square Kilometre Array”) will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. This project also includes the MeerKAT, the pathfinder to the SKA, and will be the most powerful telescope in its class.

The African Institute of Mathematical Sciences established the Next Einstein Initiative, founded in Cape Town, South Africa in 2003. As a center for post-graduate training and research and open to students from across Africa, it is connecting some of the most forward-thinking academics in mathematics and physics from around the world.

African scientists have made significant advancements in medical research, especially in HIV and malaria. It was research led from the Uganda-based Rakai Health Sciences that first made the connection between Aids (in USA) and “Slim disease” (in Africa) and found HIV was the cause of both.


Dams can often do more harm than good, something James Workman refers to in my interview with him elsewhere in this Journal, as well as on the MIPJOR podcast #13-02. There are still arguments for building dams coming from parts of the developing world, but as some countries are discovering, simple, inexpensive solutions, like putting a cover on a water tank to prevent evaporation, are often more effective and frequently more beneficial than building yet another expensive dam, and watching the water evaporate.


Forests and trees are major contributors of food security, protecting the soil from erosion and maintaining water resources, as well as contributing to cleaner air, especially in a city environment.

Micro-climates created by trees in urban areas, contribute to a cooling effect, and also have an impact on water conservation both in urban and rural areas. The increasing attention by policy makers on urban and peri-urban gardens is also an attractive solution to poverty and food insecurity.

Re-greening efforts by farmers who are planting, managing and protecting trees on their farms instead of cutting them down, are transforming the dry regions of the continent, especially in places of high population density and with that manage to increase crop production, mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce rural poverty.  Re-greening also creates wind breaks and shade for crops, reducing water evaporation, local temperatures and soil erosion.

Trees also provide food for livestock, home construction materials, and generate income, all of which help rural populations alleviate poverty. In famine years, farmers are able to prune trees and sell wood on the market. Villagers in several regions have reported that this addition to their personal economy has meant none of their children falling ill or dying over the famine season. The benefits in economical as well as medical stability are invaluable.

In the Greater Johannesburg area, 10 million trees (around twice that of New York City), gives that city one of the largest man-made urban forests in the world. Massive efforts have been underway over the last six years to plant more trees in Soweto, one of the largest cities on the continent prior to being incorporated into Johannesburg.

Niger has seen the planting of 12 million acres with 200 million trees over the last 2 decades, resulting in a visible turnaround in grain production. Where before, erratic rainfall had threatened a significant grain deficit, the new high tree density on farms had assisted in turning that into a surplus.

In Mali’s Seno Plains, more than 1 million acres of trees have been planted.

Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Senegal are all adopting re-greening programs.

Local leaders have noted the impact of climate change on crops, fishing, livestock, rainfall, forests, and have developed and adapted techniques to deal with those changes. Strategies include using short-cycle seed varieties to cope with a shorter rainy season; the use of wetlands and valleys for agriculture and livestock farming; improving the efficiency of agricultural productivity, including encouraging women to establish small market gardens in the off-season; and breeding smaller animals which adapt to a drier climate than larger ruminants like cattle (for example, SA has developed a hardy sheep in the arid, semi-desert region of the Karoo, resulting in an exceptional quality of meat). Improved inter-village collaborative management of local resources are becoming more popular as education and awareness increases.

Several organizations have been established – from AMCEN (African Ministerial Conference on the Environment), the ADB (Africa Development Bank), ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), SADC (Southern African Development Community) – all gearing their attention towards building awareness and helping their regions learn adaptation skills. These organizations are promoting cooperation in water management, as well as making fundamental changes (for example, relocating flood victims in Mozambique), but there is still a lack of general consensus. At the 2007 AU Summit, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni lay the blame of greenhouse gas emission squarely at the feet of the wealthy nations, but also made it clear that for Africans to sit back and depend on those nations truly reforming their ways would be foolish.

African leaders, from SA to Ethiopia, Rwanda and Gabon and beyond, have stepped up to the challenge, playing a prominent role in launching positive initiatives. From SA, the National Climate Change Response Strategy established adaptation measures designed to enhance social, economic, environmental, resilience, to Ethiopia’s Climate-Resilient Green Economy, whose objectives are to keep greenhouse gases to current levels and to expand renewable electricity sources, re-create forests and improve crops and livestock practices, among many other much-needed reforms.

Rwanda links its Green Growth and Climate Resilience strategy with tourism and better designed infrastructure, roads and cities, encouraging cyclists and pedestrians.

Kenya struggled with erratic weather patterns, cycling through droughts and floods, resulting in a GDP loss of around 40%. Developing renewable energy in partnership with private sector has become a priority.

Even oil-rich Nigeria, where it has always been challenging to deal with the enormous issues related to the pipelines, policy frameworks have been developed. As the most populous country on the continent, it is only too aware of the devastating potential of climate change causing social unrest, health issues and increased dire poverty on an unimaginable scale.

Some of the most powerful groups across the continent – churches, labor unions and private enterprise – are all stepping in to share leadership roles, putting pressure on governments and educating the populations as to the results of inaction.

The rest of the world, however, still seems to see the continent as a place generally unworthy of much attention. Kyoto’s CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) has largely excluded African countries from sharing in the profits of the various projects, with only around 2% going to Africa, while China receives 33%.

The biggest causes of emissions in Africa come from landfills, gas and oil extraction, deforestation, among others, and as corporations engage in many of these practices for profit, the CDM is subsidizing them to continue to pollute. The Emissions Trading Scheme forgives pollution in the northern and western developed countries, offsetting those harmful practices with dubious projects in Africa. Social resistance, especially evident in Nigeria by residents in the areas of the oil pipelines, is then met with oppression and further violation of civil and human rights.

Increasingly, there is more focus on long term interests, rather than short term growth, and a willingness to preserve and protect natural resources while still meeting the needs of the poor.

The growth seen across the continent’s diverse economies is becoming more complex. Economies are no longer based on natural resources and commodity prices, but have diversified into retail, banking, and manufacturing.  This change in status has led to mobile phones becoming more affordable, providing a better opportunity to educate Africans on how to use appropriate technology, and engaging the rural poor in adaptive strategies that will alter their engagement in survival methods, including deforestation, to improved practices that will benefit them in the long-term.

But for all this continental attention and serious/mindful intentions, there is also a great deal of frustration by African leaders at the lack of focus coming from those more responsible: Europe is still obsessed with the Euro crisis, America is obsessed with, well, itself, and China moves along at its own pace, fairly oblivious to anyone else.


African countries have the skills, technology, knowledge and incentive to go ahead and implement the plans and opportunities and many are supported by international private industries and institutions. The worldwide economic downturn affected the economies of many middle-income African countries, but there is a high expectation that recovery will be far stronger than the developed nations will experience. Developing advanced, smart technologies is going to require financial support, especially from the developed nations.

Denying full support to the continent threatens the political, economic, and civil/human rights gains of the last 2 decades, and the longer the world takes to act, the more difficult it will be to avoid the high human and financial costs.

This article was first published in MIPJ: Climate Change Resource Conflict, the Environment, and Human Security. Volume 2.1. Available at