Climate Change and Agriculture in Sub-saharan Africa:Who is at Risk? What Do We Do?

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p style=”text-align:justify;”>Public opinions have become more informed recently over increasing focus on environmental issues like climate change, global warming, rising investments in sustainability and use of renewable energy. The trend has garnered momentum globally. Although debates persist over

the urgency concerned groups of environmentalists are driving and others who insinuate that anthropogenic interference with natural environmental processes are really just natural events seen through the light of informed alarmism. The people described in these categories cut across all walks of life: from regular every day individuals to corporations and even entire governments. In the United States for example, there arguably exists the single largest educated populace who share the opinion that climate change as one pressing example, is not real.

This notion is shared by around 60% of the United States’ workforce even though more than 90% of the population is at least topically aware of the problem. As the prime and arguably the most successful capitalist economy existing on earth, issues about global warming raise defensive attitudes from corporations, individuals and even the government when links start to track back to consumerism and the practise of capitalism – especially in $6trn fossil “fuelled” energy market – as a fundamental contributor to global warming. The threat to our ways of life – that understandably fuels this disposition – as described by authors like John Cook, is undeniably apparent.

In the UK, the situation is slightly different with more than 50% of the workforce supporting claims of a changing climate and just over 20% remaining indifferent. In Norway, polls suggested that only about 10% of the Norwegian population was “worried” about the possible impacts of climate change even though public awareness stands at an impressive 97% same as in Australia. As in the UK, the situation is mirrored in the EU while opinions in eastern European countries as well as developing Asia although being disputed, has seen increasing action being taken through sustained investment in renewable energy in countries like China for instance. Generally, it follows a conventional trend that more developed countries are better informed on global environmental issues than their lesser developed counterparts even if a resolution to take decisive action on changing the status quo regrettably does not follow a similar trend. This is probably reflected in the perpetuation of denial about significant issues like global warming among more educated individuals in these countries.

In Africa however, the situation is different. Awareness of global warming itself is remarkably low ranging from 15% of the Liberian population to 80% in Ethiopia – by far the highest by any stretch for an African country. The African average of awareness of global warming stands at 41.5% over 35 surveyed countries with the populations of regional power houses like Nigeria and South Africa having 28% and 31% awareness respectively. High population figures in countries like Nigeria and South Africa as peculiar cases, however point towards a deeper problem of education. However, among agriculturally inclined communities, research has shown that more than 90% of the considered population from Burkina Faso to South Africa possess at least an informal perception of climate change as they describe the effects as changes in rainfall patterns, reduction in soil fertility and destruction of crops through extreme weather events.

The proposed impacts of climate change to Africa have made for topics of major debates. On the aspect of agriculture: loss of productivity due to extreme weather events like flooding and droughts, reduction in soil fertility especially through erosion, changes in rates of decomposition, increasing soil temperature and impacts to resident macro and micro fauna, nitrogen unavailability, etc. are important issues that come to mind. The imperatives are increasing stress on food and water resources leading to more marked shortages and increased reliance on imports in a continent where a substantial portion of the population either source their food or livelihood or both, from subsistence agriculture and where according to the UN, around 300 million people live in water scarce environments. The impacts to subsistence agriculture is especially pronounced as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in 2001 pointed out that around 50% of the population of rural areas in developing countries engage in some form of subsistence agriculture. In sub-Saharan Africa however, the figure rises to around 73% with 90% of wheat, cocoa, cotton and other cash crops coming from these sources in countries like Nigeria.

The use of water for irrigation especially in sub-Saharan Africa has been tagged as largely unsustainable and in recent times the quest for freshwater has become significantly more difficult and this rides on the fact that around 70% of water resources on the continent are used in agriculture. This has resulted in the abstraction of ground water reservoirs which is an energy intensive process that has made usable freshwater for domestic and agricultural use more expensive and poor management practices of these sources may pose even greater threat to the already insecure water conditions. Surface water sources like rivers, lakes and streams have been, comparing with historical data, known to have reduced considerably in volume at certain times of the year owing to the effects of climate change and in some extremes, the surface water sources are entirely gone. Examples of these instances include the receding Lake Chad and Lake Kariba (both having shrunk to around 20% their pre-1980s volume) close to the Zambezi River in Zambia with even the Niger River and the famous Nile recording successive shrinking annually.

Reduction of emissions as a primary response to dealing with the problems of climate change would have very little impact in this case while the development of carbon capture technology would appreciably come very low on the list of people who have basic issues like food, water and basic healthcare to figure out. Hence, subverting the intricacies and terminologies, the implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation measures seem like the most obvious course of action. These may range from the use of more climate change resistant species, to switching the crops produced, investment in extensive irrigation networks and in cases of increased persistence of pest attacks; deployment of pesticides that is more intensive. Increased use of organic and inorganic fertilizers, integrating livestock and crop farming and more capital-intensive methods like the deployment of agricultural insurance schemes for farmers who suffer losses to crops and infrastructure through climate change related events, to completely abandoning agriculture and seeking livelihood from other means may also be some pragmatic responses.

Some of the above mentioned adaptation plans might already be adopted albeit as response to other issues that are being exacerbated by climate change. Those however, that are dependent on more spending such as improved irrigation networks, the development, purchase and use of more climate change resistant species, etc. leave some further concerns about sources of funding through which these aspects can be met. Furthermore and very importantly is the willingness to adopt the proposed measures especially in instances where their implementation runs in deviation with cultural, religious and traditional norms that have been upheld for considerable periods. Further concerns include the feasibility with respect to developing local supply chains to meet these needs. Finally, in the events that all possible mitigation measures have been deployed, considering the possibility that not all issues may be effectively resolved in the short, medium or long-term, informing affected people about irreversible changes in their simple ways of life; frankly, a problem to which they have contributed very little but would suffer disproportionately.

Concerns also exist regarding the impacts to human and livestock health as these are important determinants on issues like productivity through unavailability of workforce and the economic viability of the considered aspects. While Malaria is being very strongly touted to increase in prevalence especially among tropical/sub-tropical regions that are bound to experience more rainfall on more days of the year as conducive breeding grounds for the malaria vector (the mosquito), become increasingly available. Similarly, diseases common to livestock like sleeping sickness in cattle, blue tongue in sheep and Schmallenberg virus (SBV) affecting all of cattle, goat and sheep; the latter, thought to have originated from Africa, being the most recent to have appeared on the Europeans continent with the spread of the virus being very strongly linked with increasing temperatures.

Other than agriculture through which the most significant carbon footprints and water usage is recorded, achievement of the implementation of sustainable solutions to these issues be achieved in an economically feasible, cost-effective, tradition and culture respecting, manner grows into a potent question

The situation has the making of a “solution-less” problem on the part of the rural population in the developing world; adaptation and mitigation in these regions have very little to do with “reducing” carbon footprints or policies regarding cutting emissions. From the point of view of these regions, it seems that the best contribution they could possibly give would be enduring the effects of climate change while other developed countries do their best to battle it in time.

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