Climate change: Bracing for impact in Africa

Globally, climatic shocks have become more frequent and intense. Many people still think of climate change as a future phenomenon, probably because climate change-related projections are tied to future dates: 2030, 2050, or 2100, for instance. But we are, unfortunately, experiencing climate change, and have done so for some time now. Over the past century, global temperatures have increased and sea-level rise is already starting to affect certain low-lying coastal communities.

Climate change is having severe impacts on Africa. More than 50 major African cities are vulnerable to severe climate-related hazards posed by sea level and air temperatures rise. The rise in Africa’s surface temperature has outpaced the world’s. Africa experienced its fourth-warmest year since 1910, in 2020. The temperature rises and distortion in rainfall patterns have culminated in the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the continent. As a matter of fact, the frequency of natural disasters in Africa has outpaced the rest of the world.

After drought, flooding incidents affect most people across the continent, though they are concentrated in a few countries, including Kenya, South Africa, and Mozambique. Southern Africa is no stranger to the devastating impacts of weather-related hazards such as floods, wildfires, storms, and droughts. The region has already been experiencing climate changes that are more rapid, and with impacts that are more severe than the global average, making it particularly vulnerable.

For the past three years, five tropical storms have hit the Southern Africa region killing around 780 people and leaving nearly 5 million people extremely vulnerable. Many times, the storms are followed by dry weather and drought, perfect condition to breed pests such as fall armyworms that have decimated thousands of hectares of crops. These events have decimated infrastructure and impoverished communities, causing ruinous economic and social losses.

Tropical storm Ana, which made landfall from late January to early February, caused widespread destruction and triggered flooding across Southern Africa. Fatalities were recorded in a few countries including Mozambique, Malawi, and Uganda. In Malawi, for instance, the tropical storm Ana left over 100,000 families displaced, and thousands of hectares of crops and vital infrastructure damaged by heavy rainfall, strong winds, and large-scale flooding. In addition to dozens of fatalities and hundreds of missing person reports, many communities are inaccessible by road – mainly in poor, rural areas – leaving many stranded and cut off from communication and electricity.

Similarly, Mozambique has suffered repeated destructive storms in recent years, and this has made it extremely vulnerable. While still counting the losses from cyclones Idia and Kenneth that struck in 2019, Mozambique is dealing with a complex crisis – in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic – which has caused an enormous strain on its budget and the population. Cyclone Idia left Mozambique with the second-highest death toll.

Madagascar is still counting the toll of cyclone Batsirai, which left 121 people dead earlier in February, according to official figures, and destroyed many buildings and roads. A few weeks earlier, Tropical Storm Ana claimed 58 lives and displaced 130,000 people in Madagascar. South Africa and Lesotho have also been hit by unusually heavy rainfalls, triggering floods that have killed scores of people. Likewise, parts of Zimbabwe and Zambia also received torrential rainfalls, floods, and strong winds from the Tropical Storm Ana but not as severe damage compared to Mozambique and Malawi.

With Southern African communities reeling from the impact of inclement weather that has destroyed several houses and other property, there is no avoiding the reality that southern Africa is in the throes of a climate emergency. Southern Africa has been notified of its high risk of climate change-related high-impact tropical cyclones, coastal flooding, and intense rainfall and is advised to stay prepared. The Southern Africa region and nearby islands in the Indian Ocean are expecting about eight to 12 more cyclones before the end of the cyclone season in May.

Africa’s islands and coastal cities are at a high risk of more extreme weather in the coming years. They are likely to see continued rises in the sea level in this century leading to severe coastal flooding, marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels. The Indian Ocean’s surface has warmed faster than the global average, which can lead to more cyclones and more droughts. Temperature changes and distortion in rainfall patterns can affect economic activity, especially in climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture, fishing, and tourism. Besides disrupting economic activity, they can intensify the volatility of government revenues.

Without urgent adaptation measures, African cities and towns – especially those in Southern Africa – will be hard hit, leaving millions exposed and vulnerable to climate change. A higher frequency of climatic shocks in the region – including tropical storms – means the 88 million extremely poor people across this region (due to inequality and enduring two years of the COVID-19 pandemic) have little resilience left and their capacity to bounce back is severely constrained. This is due largely to decreased funding for emergency, recovery, and long-term support to affected communities.

To build communities’ resilience and ensure they are better prepared for future storms, it is important to invest in early warning systems and anticipatory action. In Malawi, for instance, the intensity of the storm was only forecast two days before it hit, giving communities in its path little warning to evacuate. Finance is also needed to help disaster-struck communities recover and rebuild. Mechanisms to facilitate quick insurance payouts when disaster hits should be introduced.

Evacuation drills that prepare people for storms could also help community response and minimize losses. Anticipatory action, before a hazard strikes, is critical to reducing losses and damages. They could prevent a lot of human suffering and are cost-effective. The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa has also called for climate-smart planning in all economic sectors to counter the threatening outcomes from extreme events. Sustained investments in disaster risk reduction and resilient nature-based ecosystems are needed to cushion Africa’s socio-economic growth, fast-track poverty alleviation, and attain a smart and climate-neutral industrialization agenda.