Apocalypse: The Continent Burning Into A Desert
By Geoffrey Lean
30 October 2006
am 70 years old now, and the temperatures are getting hotter and hotter
as the years go by," says Habiba Hassan, standing in a field of
ruined crops near her village of Beniday in Somalia.
The winters where she lives,
200 miles north-west of Mogadishu, used to be "very hot during
the day and cold at night", she adds. But now "we have to
sleep outside at night, it is so hot".
Somalia's harvest, brought
in last month, is almost 30 per cent lower than normal, the result of
the worst drought in at least 40 years. The UN's Food and Agriculture
Organisation says that the situation is "alarming", with a
"severe food crisis", affecting 1.8 million people, persisting
throughout the country for at least the rest of the year.
Around Habiba Hassan's home
no one can remember a drought this severe. Children have been dying,
and the land, in her words, is "turning to desert". She has
no doubt about the cause: "It's global warming." How does
she know? The people of her village had learnt about it from the BBC
Somali service, heard on their £2.50 radios.
Hers is just one of the African
voices in a searing report on the danger that the changing climate poses
to the continent, published tomorrow by 22 British environment and development
charities, pressure groups and academic institutes. It shows that the
world's poorest continent - the continent least able to cope with the
impact of climate change - is the most vulnerable to its effects.
The report comes the day
before the unveiling of a top-level Treasury review into the effects
and economics of global warming, which will herald a new government
initiative on the issue, headed by the Chancellor and prime minister-in-waiting,
Gordon Brown, And it is published only one week before the opening in
Nairobi, Kenya, of the next, crucial round of international negotiations
on what is to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.
The Stern review will tomorrow
spell out the enormous consequences for the world of failing to control
climate change and will take issue directly with President Bush's insistence
- at times apparently backed by Tony Blair - that tackling it would
be economically ruinous.
It will show, on the contrary,
that refusing to take action would lead to the biggest worldwide economic
crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, with "catastrophic
consequences" around the globe, whereas tackling it would be relatively
inexpensive, and could, indeed, stimulate the world economy.
The 700-page review will
call for immediate action, criticise the United States, take a swipe
at the conventional economics that have dominated thinking for the past
quarter of a century, suggest measures to cut pollution at home, and
call for increased aid to help poor countries - such as those in Africa
- cope with the effects of global warming.
Tomorrow's report - by the
Working Group on Climate Change and Development, an alliance of 22 bodies
- makes clear how urgent and necessary that will be. It is an update
of a previous report by the group, "Africa - Up in Smoke?"
which helped to persuade Mr Brown of the importance of the issue.
Now Habiba Hassan is urging
him, and the world, to act. And so are others from Africa's grassroots,
or what is left of them. Paul Mayan Mariao, a chief in the drought-stricken
Turkana area of north-eastern Kenya reports in "Africa - Up in
Smoke 2": "The weather is changing. We used to get heavy rains
when the winds came from the west. Now the wind comes from the east,
so it brings little or no rain."
And Sesophio, a Masai herdsman
from Ngorongoro, Tanzania, blames "this development, like cars,
that is bringing stress to the land ... We think there is a lot of connection
between that and what is happening now with the droughts."
The report bears out their
fears with hard facts. "Africa is steadily warming," it concludes.
"It is becoming clear that in many places dangerous climate change
is already taking place." The six warmest years ever recorded in
Africa have all been since 1987, it says, and in many parts of the continent
temperatures are expected to rise twice as fast as in the world as a
whole. The result will be to drive its climate ever more towards extremes.
Traditionally arid areas such as the north-east and south of the continent,
and the Sahel on the fringes of the Sahara in west Africa, are becoming
drier - with increased droughts - while rainy areas, such as equatorial
Africa, are getting wetter, with more floods.
Even worse, perhaps, the
weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable, with confusing changes
in the seasons, making it harder and harder for poor farmers to know
when to invest their scarce time and resources into planting, tending
and harvesting their crops.
The report predicts that
"climate change will reduce crop yields by 10 per cent over the
whole of Africa", a catastrophic development in a hungry continent
which, even now, is struggling to increase its harvests enough to feed
its rapidly growing population. But even this figure, as an average,
disguises much greater, more local disasters.
Tanzania, for example, expects
its maize harvests to fall by a third, and its millet yield to go down
by three-quarters. Meanwhile the sorghum crop, another staple, is expected
to drop by as much as four-fifths in Sudan.
In all, according to other
predictions, 40 per cent of Africa's countries will suffer "major
losses" in cereal production. Yet four out of every five of its
people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods - and the number
of the desperately poor has almost doubled, to more than 500 million,
in the past 25 years.
Water is becoming scarcer
as drought increases - and the rain that falls comes in ever heavier
storms, running straight of the land rather than filtering down to replenish
The United Nations Environment
Programme's (Unep) flagship report, "The Global Environmental Outlook",
says that there is only one-third as much water for each African as
there was in the 1970s. Two out of three people in its rural areas,
and a quarter of its urban population, do not have access to safe drinking
Climate change and population
growth will make this far worse. The Unep report adds: "Fourteen
countries in Africa are subject to water stress or water scarcity, and
a further 11 will join them in the next 25 years."
© 2006 Independent News
and Media Limited
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