Climate change: Southern Africa is feeling the heat

Posted by Alastair Otter on May 7, 2007
Posted in Green News

Southern Africa is already feeling the effects of climate change. Average temperatures in the region having increased by between 0,2°C and 1°C since the 1970s and a further increase of about 1°C is “unavoidable”, said Dr Guy Midgley of the South African National Biodiversity Institute at a press briefing in Johannesburg recently.

Less than half of this temperature change can be ascribed to natural causes alone, the bulk is due to greenhouse gas emissions, he added.

Dr Midgley is one of the lead authors of the United Nations Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Working Group II report, which deals with the impacts of climate change on the natural world and human society. He spoke at a press briefing to launch Working Group II’s Summary for Policymakers (SPM).

The projections for 2020-2029 for central southern Africa are warming of 1,5°C to 2°C, centred on Botswana – that is if no action to curb greenhouse gas emissions takes place between now and then. But these projections are not for the most fossil-fuel-intensive development scenario (known as A1FI), “which appears to be the development trajectory we’re on globally”, said Midgley.

The most significant impact for Southern Africa will be on water. “A 1°C increase in temperature equals a 5% increase in evaporation,” Dr Pauline Dube of the University of Botswana, also a lead author of the report, explained.

By 2020, the IPCC’s report projects that …

• between 75-million and 250-million people in Africa will be exposed to increased water stress. About 25% of the population (or about 200-million people) reportedly already suffer from water stress (see reference).

• There could be a 10 to 30% decrease in the average river run-off in parts of Africa, especially the south-west.

• Some countries may face a reduction in rain-fed crop yields of as much as 50%. Small-scale farmers who tend to be dependent on rain for irrigation will be the worst hit. This would “exacerbate malnutrition in the continent”, the SPM states. According to a UN Environment Programme press release, wheat may disappear from Africa by 2080 and Southern Africa’s maize yields may fall significantly.

• Tourism on the continent may also take a knock because changes in a variety of ecosystems are already being observed, with the area of arid or semi-arid land expected to increase by up to 8% by the end of the century. The iconic Okavango Delta may be at risk, as are the Cape fynbos and succulent Karoo ecosystems. And, according to published work, between 25 and 40% of animal species in national parks in sub-Saharan Africa may become endangered.

• Malaria may spread to places that were previously free of the disease, although this is a contentious area that needs more research, said Midgley.

In the longer term, by the 2080s, sea level rise will put a number of the continent’s coastal cities at risk of flooding and millions of people living in low-lying areas could be affected.

Place these projections in the context of a continent that has the highest proportion of poor people in the world. (In 2004 the number of people living on $1 a day in sub-Saharan Africa stood at 40% of the population – nearly 300-million, according to the World Bank.) Add to this HIV/Aids, conflict and other non-climate factors and the future certainly looks bleak.

But Africans shouldn’t simply see themselves as victims, said Dr Dube. “We need to view climate change as a challenge and come up with new innovations.” – Laura

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