Extreme weather threatens African society and economy

Droughts, floods and storms are hitting Africa with increasing frequency. With so many people dependent on subsistence agriculture, the results can be devastating, and the future looks uncertain.

Drought in the Horn of Africa, flooding in East Africa, mudslides in Sierra Leone, snow in high-altitude areas of the Sahara desert. News of extreme weather patterns across Africa is increasingly frequent.

Politics | 27.09.2017

Peter Johnston, a climate scientist at the University of Cape Town's Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) in South Africa, said while it was impossible to look at individual weather events and attribute them to climate change, a pattern was emerging.

"The fact that we are getting a warmer planet and that's impacting on the climate, we fully expect to have more extremes. That's a signal of climate change," he told DW. "But we can't say that this or that extreme is due to climate change. The increased frequency of these extreme weather patterns is, however, the result of climate change."

Read more: Climate change and extreme weather: Science is proving the link

Human Rights | 22.01.2019

The farming factor

One reason Africa is particularly vulnerable to these changes is that an estimated 70 percent of the population grow their own food to some extent. South African farming consultant Kobus Hartman said many of the farmers he works with are worried about the unpredictability of the weather.

Überschwemmungen in 16 afrikanischen Ländern - Ghana Flash-Galerie

Global warming doesn't just mean more droughts and heat waves, but also more intense rains and flooding

"A farmer up in the north of the country near Namibia tells me he's not had any significant rain for the last seven years," Hartman told DW. "That area doesn't get a lot of rain but to get no rain for this long is extreme. And that's typical. Some years we're getting huge floods, some years we're getting absolutely nothing."

Read more: Over 1,000 years old, drought resistant and unique — miracle plants in the Namib desert

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Nigerian academic Chidiebere Ofoegbu, a specialist in environmental management and climate change at the University of Cape Town's African Climate and Development Initiative, said the continent's dependence on subsistence farming makes people vulnerable.

"This means that climate change has a greater impact on people's wellbeing and their socioeconomic status," he told DW. "So you find that a little shift in, for example, rainfall, can lead many people to crop failure and the intensification of poverty."

Drought has ravaged the Horn of Africa for several years, leaving rural communities at risk of starvation

Food security under threat

Food security is one of the biggest concerns for the future, particularly as many governments cannot afford to import enough to feed the population when local crops fail.

Read more: Millions of people on brink of severe food crisis

Johnston said the biggest impact of higher temperatures will be on yields. The CSAG suggests farmers look to different crops — like legumes — that are resistant to heat and drought.

Farmers should be taught climate-smart agricultural practices Ofoegbu said. Some traditional methods may worsen the situation by, for example, reducing soil quality and degrading watersheds, he added. 

Civic organizations across Africa have been educating people, but he believes governments should be playing a bigger role in helping farmers manage both their farmland and the environment, by "teaching them a new way of farming that is compatible, that is adaptable and resilient to climatic changes," he said.

African cities are at risk from extreme weather, too. Hundreds were killed by mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, last year

Urban risks

Poor harvests are not the only worry. Bad planning, uncontrolled development, drainage problems and insufficient infrastructure make African cities vulnerable to flooding and extreme temperatures, too.

Johnston said that because many urban areas do not have sufficient sanitation and stormwater drainage, a flood can cause widespread health problems, which will only worsen unless improvements are made.

"We know that climate change has an impact on the spread of malaria and other diseases," he told DW. "We also know that they're going to be more volatile and spread more because of increased temperature and rainfall."

Diversification for resilience

Stephanie Midgley, a professor and agricultural scientist at South Africa's Stellenbosch University, believes African countries need to diversify their economies, including within the agricultural sector, to build up resilience to climate change.

Extreme weather leads to hunger, which in turn forces people to migrate

"Countries that have manufacturing or resources are obviously better able to cope sometimes with these things," she told DW. "But countries that have very low diversification and are almost completely reliant on agriculture — they take the shocks really badly."

Sounding the alarm

The experts agree that Africa's vulnerability is not only because of its dependence on agriculture but also because many communities lack the capacity to respond or adapt to climate change impacts. Building resilience is fundamental to sustainable development and prosperity.

Read more: 2°C: 'We have a 5 percent chance of success'

Read more: Is the world prepared for climate refugees?

The CSAG director and climate scientist Bruce Hewitson believes that if we cannot keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) we will face major problems including water restrictions and the disruption of coastal cities and agricultural systems that will in turn lead to increased migration. 

"All of this of course is a constraint on development," he told DW. "We're looking at an increase in negative factors that hold Africa back. And that has a trickle-down effect on societal well-being. So we're facing a decrease in human security going into the future, unless we can get our act together. Soon."

Africa's fight against climate change

Africa's fight against climate change

It's mainly industrial nations that are responsible for producing greenhouse gases such as CO2 that contribute to climate change. But the main victims of climate change are in the countries of the global South. As Africa is hit by drought, storms, erosion and desertification, people there are starting initiatives to combat climate change.

Africa's fight against climate change

Millions of climate change refugees expected from Africa

Mozambique is the African country most affected by extreme weather events. Entire neighborhoods in the coastal town of Beira are already endangered by rising sea levels and flooding from heavy rain. Experts say weather related disasters force twice as many people from their homes than conflict and violence. It's estimated Africa will experience some 20 million climate refugees within ten years.

Africa's fight against climate change

Defying the power of the sea

The world's leading climate change advisory body, the IPCC, estimates sea levels will rise by 40 to 80 cm by 2100. To improve water drainage, Beira is rehabilitating the river which flows through its center, carrying out reforestation and constructing a new canal. It is also building a barrier which can be closed at high tide to protect the town.

Africa's fight against climate change

A great green wall across Africa

The yellow sands of the Sahara desert continue to creep their way south, encroaching on the farmlands of sub-Saharan Africa. Eleven African countries are trying to stop this drift with a 7,750 kilometer long and 15 kilometer wall of trees. Tree roots stabilize and aerate the soil, allowing the absorption of water and stopping desertification. It will also provide people with new livelihoods.

Africa's fight against climate change

Preventing erosion

Soil erosion and desertification threatens the livelihood of farmers in many parts of Africa. Using a special irrigation system, Sounna Moussa from Niger is making his soil fertile again. His technique is centuries old but had been virtually forgotten. Experts also recommend growing traditional crops better suited to the soil.

Africa's fight against climate change

Hydropower is not always green

Hydropower is the world's largest source of renewable energy. Traditionally, it is seen as a reliable and clean way of generating power. But now hydropower is meeting more resistance from environmental groups and local communities. Sometimes whole forests are cut down or villages are relocated to make way for a new hydroelectric dam.

Africa's fight against climate change

Green energy for Africa

All of Africa will have access to power by 2030. This ambitious goal was set by 55 African heads of state and government at the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris. The Africa Renewable Energy Initiative plans to feed 300 gigawatts of green electricity per year into power grids across Africa. Wind farms like this one here in Ethiopia are just the beginning.

Africa's fight against climate change

Generating their own power

People across Africa are increasingly generating their own green electricity rather than relying on dirty generators or unreliable grid power. Dramatic drops in the price of solar power now make renewable electricity more affordable, whether it's powering a hospital or school with a row of solar panels or lighting a home with a small solar lamp.

Africa's fight against climate change

Plastic bottles instead of clay bricks

In Africa, the upcycling trend hasn't just conquered the fashion world but also the construction industry. In Nigeria, people are building whole houses from used plastic bottles that otherwise litter the environment. It's estimated that a million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world.

Africa's fight against climate change

Tanzania's young climate hero

Getrude Clement is committed to protecting the environment. Once a week, the Tanzanian teenager produces an environmental program for her local radio station. "I hope my listeners are doing something to change the situation here - to protect the environment and keep our water clean," she told DW. She's seen here speaking to the UN General Assembly in New York in April, 2016.

Africa's fight against climate change

Africa needs climate change experts

To make Africa more resistant to climate change, its effects need to be better understood at local and regional levels. The southern African scientific organization SASSCAL is working on this, with support from Germany. SASSCAL aims to lessen the impact of climate change on agriculture and water.