Climate Change Threatens Southern Africa's Food Security

By Singy Hanyona

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, December 6, 2005 (ENS) - Climate changes have led to a drastic fall in agricultural production in Malawi and other southern African countries delegates to the ongoing UN climate change conference are learning. Already over-burdened with HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, unprecedented drought has hit these countries, pressuring them to import huge amounts of food.

In a moving statement to the Adaptation and Development Seminar at the conference, Lands Secretary George Mkondiwa of Malawi, said the time when Malawians were able to feed themselves, after independence in 1964, is long gone.

“As I speak, some five million Malawians, nearly half of the entire population, face starvation and require food aid," said Mkondiwa. "The more vulnerable sections of the population are subsisting on unpalatable wild foods."


George Mkondiwa of Malawi, principal secretary in the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Surveys, addressed participants in the Development and Adaptation Days event. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
The Development and Adaptation Days event took place Saturday and Sunday. Hosted by the International Institute for Environment and Development, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the RING Alliance of Policy Research Organizations, this event was held alongside the 11th Conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the first meeting of the parties to its Kyoto Protocol.

Zambian scientist Dr. George Kasali told seminar participants that due to climate change, farmers in Sub-saharan Africa are no longer certain when the rains will begin and when to plant. He admits that Zambia is among the countries that have been affected by food insecurity as a result of the warming climate.

He said that countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Zambia, are in the process of developing a National Adaptation Programme of Action on Climate Change (NAPA), there is a need to engage all stakeholders in the consultative process.

“We need to organize more activities around the issue of climate change. The role of the media becomes critical in this,” said Dr. Kasali, an independent consultant who works with a local environmental group, the Energy and Environmental Concerns of Zambia.

Already, in the southern part of Zambia, food crisis has hit villagers, and an estimated 400,000 people are starving.


Josephine Kachabe of Tiki Mwiinga village, Gwembe District in southern Zambia, eats wild pods and roots. Even these wild foods, many of them toxic, are in short supply in Zambia this year. (Photo by Michael Huggins courtesy WFP)
Evans Mwengwe, Care International Zambia project manager for food security and agriculture, says agricultural production has declined as a result of many factors, including climate change, that are taking their toll on most Zambian farming communities.

Aaneas Chuma, the UN resident representative for Zambia, confirmed that as a result of the food crisis, Care International has targeted 8,000 households for food aid and also has initiated a K40,000 (US$10), cash transfer program in which villagers are given cash to buy certain commodities. Zambia is currently importing maize, the country’s staple food, from the neighboring South Africa.

In Malawi, Mkondiwa told delegates, last year farmers who planted during the first rains as recommended by agricultural extension scientists, had to helplessly watch their crops scorch and die as rains stopped for long spells. He says the pattern has been the same over several years.

“Everyone is asking such questions as, 'Is this due to climate change or not…and what proof do you have?' I can assure you that everyone that is experiencing these adverse effects first hand, that indeed the patterns and trends in climate have changed in the last decades," Mkondiwa said.

While local scientists have not yet published their findings in the journal "Science," Mkondiwa told delegates at the Adaptation and Development Seminar, "We don’t think there is any doubt that this is due to climate change.”

“Malawi does not have the luxury to wait, for instance, for scientific research to prove some indelible link between climate change and recent droughts, because people are dying now,” he said.


In southern Malawi, hard work brought success. Villagers dug canals linking the nearby river to their maize fields with help from the Malawian government, the European Union and the UN World Food Programme. (Photo by Chris Endean courtesy WFP)
Most small-scale farmers in southern African countries like Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, have historically been able to adapt to normal climatic variability with creative and indigenous practices. However, the recent droughts have affected these traditional systems and thrown farmers into a state of confusion.

While farmers in the developed world can often make up for short rainy seasons by using man-made water sources, farmers in southern Africa often labor without the most basic of irrigation systems. Burdened by decades of underdevelopment and impoverishment, the agricultural industry so crucial to African economies is now increasingly crippled by periodic droughts.

In addition to its high environmental impact, climate change in Sub-saharan Africa is made even more dire by the region’s limited resources.

The capacity of most developing countries to respond to rapid environmental changes is diminished by infrastructures and budgets already strained by a multitude of competing challenges.

"Climate change does not act in isolation in Africa but, instead, is just one additional stressor, because we are already contending with a lot of problems, including poverty, food insecurity, civil wars and conflicts," said Dr. Anthony Nyong, professor of environmental science at the University of Jos in Nigeria.


The climate change conference session on adaptation science was co-chaired by Tony Nyong, University of Jos, Nigeria. (Photo courtesy ENB)
Global warming is caused by increased atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Industrialization and human activities that burn oil, gasoline and coal push the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere to artificially high levels.

As a result, the average temperature of the Earth's surface has risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years, and will climb by another 1.4 to 5.8 degrees C. in the next century, according to the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The world's most developed countries are the leading producers of greenhouse gases. The United States pumps out about 25 percent of all greenhouse emissions, while the G8 nations together are responsible for about half the world's total output.

By comparison, the entire African continent produces only about five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

In Montreal, delegates discussed the need to link development with climate change.

Joel Smith of Status Consulting Inc, gave an example of how climate change could be factored into development planning.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is examining how adaptation could be incorporated into specific development projects that are likely to be sensitive to climate change.

In the South African city of Polokwane, formerly Pietersburg, for instance, infrastructure is being built to supply water to the municipality for urban, agricultural, mining and other uses in this semi-arid area, which is already prone to drought.


Woman in Mozambique carries a bag of food aid from the United States. The American donation of US$150 million worth of food aid is the largest contribution in 2005 to the World Food Programme's southern Africa operation. (Photo by Richard Lee courtesy WFP)
Much of Mozambique experienced a good cereal and cassava crop in 2005 compared with other countries in the region. However, the country is suffering from its fourth consecutive year of drought and many thousands are in need of food aid.

Mozambican farmers tend to explain the floods of 2000 and the recent sequence of droughts as the results of supernatural intervention. “They say it is punishment from God, an expression of ancestor’s anger or bad luck,” says Pablo Suarez, of Boston University, telling the seminar participants about community disaster management.

Suarez said, “As a consequence, they think that these events are unlikely to happen again, therefore, reducing their willingness to set up early warning systems or to replace maize by drought-resistant crops such as cassava.”

Suarez sums it up by saying that bringing climate change awareness to rural areas can help Mozambican farmers see that those extreme events may be related to a different, global process.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) Capacity Development and Adaptation Cluster puts development planning at the apex of preparing for climate change, saying there is need for communities to be better prepared to face the expected challenges of climate change.

Established in 1991, the GEF helps developing countries fund projects and programs that protect the global environment, including projects related to climate change.

{Singy Hanyona is a Zambian environmental journalist.}