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Why climate change has become a big threat to vulnerable African countries

Sunday June 16 2013

By WILSON UGANGU & JAMES KINYANGI

Climate change and its consequences present an enormous threat to human development today. It is with this understanding that UN agencies are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to advance agreements on climate change, anchored around the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

For most African countries, climate change has not only become a key policy priority as reflected in their national communications to the UNFCCC, but also the reason for a more concerted engagement in the global climate change debate.

This may explain Kenya’s recent move to launch a national climate change action plan that will guide the transition of the country towards a low-carbon climate resilient development pathway.

Coming at the height of the recent political campaign season, this important document may not have been noticed by many. However, its relevance for Kenya’s future cannot be underestimated.

The plan lays out a policy roadmap for reducing the country’s vulnerability to climate change while also acknowledging that without such action, our development priorities aimed at transforming the country into a newly industrialising, middle-income country as envisaged under Vision 2030 will be hampered.

Like most African countries, Kenya’s economy remains fragile due to the dependency on rain-fed agriculture, which contributes up to 28.5 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.

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Recent food shortages occasioned by droughts in most parts of the country point to the high level of vulnerability facing the agricultural sector.

According to the Ministry of Environment, recent droughts have left up to 3.7 million people without access to food and therefore vulnerable to hunger.

Between 2008 and 2011, drought alone slowed the country’s economic growth by an average 2.8 per cent per year.

In more recent times, the ministry has warned that the impact of climate change could be as high as 2.6 per cent of gross domestic product each year by 2030.

Ms Fatuma Hussein, a Kenya Government party delegate to the climate talks, says that the country’s high dependency on rain-fed small-scale agriculture has increased exposure to climate-related risks, not only in the arid and semi-arid regions, but also in the grain basket regions, where some of the negative impacts could manifest themselves through crop and livestock pests and disease.

In most cases, climate change related risks worsen the poverty situation for rural and urban slum dwelling communities and weaken the safety net support networks.

However, as pointed out by the chairman of the Africa negotiating group, Mr Emmanuel Dlamini from Swaziland, the circumstances of most African countries in regard to climate change are more or less informed by similar realities.

For instance, Africa’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions remains negligible.

In a sense, therefore, African countries have collectively done little in terms of harming the environment, yet some of the greatest impacts of climate change will occur in Africa.

More important, however is the fact that African economies, where agriculture is a key contributor to national GDP, have a low capacity to adapt to the negative impacts arising from climate variability and climate change.

A more energised African climate change team of negotiators argued strongly in favour of agriculture being included in an agreement that ensures its role in providing food security and improved livelihoods for millions of small-holder farmers in Africa is secured.

An earlier meeting of African ministers of environment held several months before the Doha conference provided direction by emphasising that adaptation to climate change should be Africa’s common position in the talks.

Adaptation refers to the process by which Africa has to move towards regional and national level strategies that make it possible for societies to live with climate change.

At a more practical level, it means rural subsistence farmers taking up or adapting simple innovations and technologies to increase agricultural productivity and conserve watersheds such as the Mau forest.

Dr Ugangu is a lecturer at Multimedia University, while Dr Kinyangi works with the CGIAR Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

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