Has Africa stumbled upon an environmental apocalypse? The numerous natural disasters that have descended upon the continent hitherto—from the plague of desert locusts that have ambushed the Horn of Africa, tropical storms, floods across Eastern and Central Africa, severe droughts and heat waves to massive cyclones whose devastating effects are still felt across Southern Africa. The aftermath is a trail of death and destruction, threatening to erode hard–won development that most African countries have struggled to achieve, inflicting cascading economic consequences. Loss of lives, displacement of people, sources of income compromised, destruction of infrastructure and numerous development projects have been the ill-fated victims across the continent and have succumbed, in the wake of these natural disasters, to such events that have all stemmed from climate change.
The Covid-19 pandemic that rages on causing an economic meltdown, has further exacerbated this already dire situation, and has left the continent teetering on the edge of a precipice. In the last three decades Africa has experienced over 2,000 major natural catastrophes with most being extreme weather, climate induced disasters such as droughts, famine, food insecurity, floods, storms, landslides and cyclones. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) disasters happen three times more often today than in the 1970s and 1980s.
As World Environment Day draws closer, on June 5th, the continent stands in solidarity to the 2021 theme in line with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration designed to run from 2021 to 2030. Similarly, the period marks the timeline that scientists have projected to be critical for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change and the set deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year’s celebration will also mark the official launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The global awareness day which champions global environment conservation, is scheduled to be hosted in Pakistan, for having demonstrated real leadership in efforts to restore the country’s forests. The government of Pakistan has one of the world’s most ambitious afforestation efforts, through its ‘10 Billion Tree Tsunami’ initiative which seeks to restore and enhance over one million hectares of forest cover across the country. Pakistan has set up an Ecosystem Restoration Fund to support nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change and facilitate the transition towards environmentally resilient, ecologically targeted initiatives, covering afforestation and biodiversity conservation.
“2020 was a year of reckoning, facing multiple crises, including a global pandemic and the continued crises of climate, nature and pollution,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “In 2021, we must take deliberate steps to move from crisis to healing and in so doing we must recognize that the restoration of nature is imperative to the survival of our planet and the human race.”
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration was formulated to massively scale up the restoration of degraded ecosystems worldwide, combat the climate change crisis thereby preventing the loss of a million species and enhance food security, water supply and livelihoods. It aims at reviving millions of hectares, covering terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. The initiative led by UNEP, FAO and support partners is a global call to action to mitigate the loss and degradation of ecosystems in the planet. Currently, 3.2 billion people, an equivalence of 40% of the world’s population, suffer from the continued degradation of ecosystems and the course intends to reverse this quandary.
Gravity of the Crisis
The Horn of Africa in particular continues to grapple under the weight of the pernicious climate crisis, bearing the brunt of this deleterious menace, with the worst locust invasion ever recorded in 70 years. Since the dawn of 2020, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda have been under attack by devastating swarms that have devoured crops on a massive scale, causing profound food security impact. In a recent virtual forum on climate change, biodiversity and ecosystems in East Africa organized in Nairobi by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the African Regional Co-ordinator of Ecosystems and Biodiversity at UNEP, Levis Kavagi noted that rising temperatures present an existential threat to habitats in the greater Horn of Africa region leading to loss of biodiversity.
“Climatic stresses have compromised sustainability in the region as evidenced by rising hunger, poverty, water scarcity, forced migration and a widening gender gap. Harmonization of climate adaptation policies is required to boost the resilience of communities and ecosystems in the vast Horn of Africa region.” Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi are still reeling from the effects of two subsequent cyclones: Idai and Kenneth that tore through the region in 2019, leaving a trail of utter destruction to millions of people. In late January, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa were hit by yet another calamity, tropical cyclone Eloise which triggered floods, mudslides and landslides destroying lives and infrastructure.
Floods are a common and prevalent hazard severely affecting many countries across the continent by flooding and landslides caused by unprecedented heavy downpours. The passage of tropical cyclone Jobo in Tanzania in late April affected over 30,000 people leaving 22 dead. This was a rare occurrence for tropical cyclones to make a landfall in Tanzania; the last one was Cyclone Lindi in 1952. Burundi has been adversely affected by flooding from the rising levels of Lake Tanganyika as reported by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in late April. Over 71 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to live in both extreme poverty and extreme flood risk.
African cities have not been spared either, with researchers warning that they are the most at risk from climate change. In an index focused on climate risks, they account for 38 of the 40 most vulnerable. Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city faces Africa’s greatest environmental risks, ranking in 144th position out of 576 due to quality, heat stress and water pollution, making it the fourth most vulnerable to climate change.
Journey to Net-Zero Carbon Emissions
As countries all over the world continue to commit to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and setting net-zero targets in line with objectives of the Paris Climate Accord the response by most African countries has been dismissive. With the continent being a minor contributor to carbon emissions, most do not view it as priority considering the entire continent emits about 2% of global emissions. Currently, South Africa is the only country that has made a commitment to net-zero by 2050.
Albeit the continent is not the culprit behind climate change, the searing impact is undeniable, if climate-induced and extreme weather natural disasters are anything to go by. Research has found that to avoid the worst climate impacts, global emissions will need to drop to half by 2030 and reach net-zero around mid-century. The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that if the world reaches net-zero emissions by 2040, the chance of limiting warming to1.5°C is considerably higher. To date over fifty countries have made commitments and communicated their ‘net-zero targets’ including the world’s largest emitters, China and the US. Ahead of the UN climate negotiations scheduled for November in Glasgow, the UN High Level Climate Champions continues its global call for countries, businesses, and civil society to submit their plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Africa’s transition to net-zero emissions needs a diversified distinct pathway as each country is uniquely different. “It’s important to stop looking at Africa-wide solutions because there isn’t one…It is a continent, not a country, and looking at what are those individual pathways, the investment opportunities, and the socioeconomic dimensions are critical” noted Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and special representative of Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of the UN Energy, at the recently held London Climate Action Week.
Hope on the Horizon
It is not all doom and gloom for the continent to maintain its current exponential growth and development trajectory whilst in tandem conserving the environment. The implementation of feasible solutions and disaster risk management strategies are already underway to reduce vulnerability. The Africa Hydromet Program is a groundbreaking innovation launched by the World Bank, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and other partners to address the climate quagmire by providing reliable, modern and real-time weather, water and climate information to people in Africa; supporting communities and countries towards meeting their climate resilience and economic development goals. Effective and reliable hydromet services help people safely evacuate risky areas before disaster hits; this aids in planning for climate adaptation, helps farmers increase crop yields and helps grow various sectors impacted by weather, hydrology and the effects of climate change. The program has greatly aided Mozambique and Niger in terms of preparedness for impending disasters.
The urgent situation in the Horn of Africa is being addressed by respective governments and international intervention. According to UNEP’s Levis Kavagi, trans-boundary cooperation in areas of research, capacity-building, early warning, knowledge and technology transfer is critical to promoting climate resilience in the region that is prone to recurrent droughts. His sentiments were echoed by Tidiane Ouattara, a space science expert affiliated with the African Union Commission, who noted that the Horn of Africa states should leverage technology and local innovations to minimize impacts of climate change on vital ecosystems. According to him, investments in robust surveillance and early warning infrastructure will enhance the capacity of these countries to respond promptly to climatic shocks including droughts and floods. He emphasized on the need to harness space science to bolster climate resilience in sectors that underpin livelihoods in the region such as agriculture, livestock, fisheries, tourism and forestry. In reiteration, the Assistant Director in Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Stephen King’oo also noted that countries in the Horn of Africa are sharing best practices to enhance biodiversity conservation amid climate and human-induced threats. The implementation of nature-based climate adaptation projects has accelerated efforts of boosting the resilience of biodiversity hotspots that sustain livelihoods through water, agriculture, tourism and energy supply.
The recently released report by UNEP, ‘Making Peace with Nature’ is a scientific blueprint to tackle climate, biodiversity and pollution crises together, transforming humanity’s relationship with nature. The report draws upon global assessments including those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, UNEP International Resource Panel and new findings on the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The report offers a roadmap to a sustainable world with practical recommendations on how to tackle the three planetary emergencies: climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution. Furthermore, the report, released ahead of the fifth UN Environment Assembly, presents a rebuilding programme to protect and restore the planet and its climate in a holistic way.
Africa is well poised and all in for ecosystem restoration, as evidenced by the number of countries pledging their support for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, even before its forthcoming official launch on World Environment Day and in cognizance that healthier ecosystems are the basis of human prosperity and of the myriad benefits that come along with it. Most African states are ready to engage on the set commitments for the course. Hailed as the cradle of mankind, the continent is eager to restore its former glory.
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By June Njoroge