Hydroelectricity: for and against
Africa has vast untapped sources of hydroelectricity but climate change, particularly droughts, raises questions about sustainability
An aerial view shows the Kariba Dam and the Kariba lake in Kariba on January 20, 2020. From the Zambian side the plant is managed by ZESCO, a state-owned power company. – In the absence of sufficient rain, the Kariba dam, the main source of electricity for Zambia and Zimbabwe, is expected to operate at only 25% of its capacity in 2020. (Photo by Guillem Sartorio / AFP)
Hydroelectricity has an attractive appeal for Africa. It can provide a baseload – a reliable source of electricity – not easily attainable from other clean energy sources, and it also allows grid stabilisation tointegrate more green power. Only about 11% of the continent’s hydropower potential has been tapped but regional plans to more than double hydro production by 2030 exist. Yet, future weather changes such as droughts put power generation at risk.
Ambitions for universal access to power by 2025 mean connecting 200 million households, nearly doubling grid generation, according to a 2018 African Development Bank (AfDB) report. Despite being home to 17% of the world’s population, Africa accounts for just 4% of global power. The continent does, however, have the highest percentage of untapped technical hydropower potential in the world, says Cristina Diez Santos, International Hydropower Association (IHA) Africa analyst. With energy demand growing twice as fast as the global average, she notes, Africa has the opportunity to use its vast untapped hydropower resources to become the ﬁrst continent to develop its economy using renewable energy.
Africa has a total installed capacity exceeding 37 MW, accounting for 15% of the total electricity share in the region, but that still leaves 600 million people – about half of the continent’s population – without electricity. For many African nations, hydroelectricity could address this energy gap. The AfDB, through the New Deal on Energy for Africa strategy, a partnership between the bank, governments and other stakeholders that launched in 2016, has backed power projects contributing around 2.78 GW of additional generation capacity, out of which about 755 MW, or less than 30% is from hydropower.
“The sustainable development of Africa’s signiﬁcant, yet largely untapped hydropower potential, will aid the achievement of the continent’s ambitions in terms of energy access and increased generation capacity to underpin economic development,” Daniel-Alexander Schroth, the acting director for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the AfDB told Africa in Fact. “We are [also] cognisant that the complex nature of hydropower projects requires extensive planning, continued partnership, cooperation and learning, especially in the face of climate change challenges.”
Over the past 15 years, the AfDB has invested $560 million in some 20 hydropower projects with a total capacity of over 1.8 GW, out of which around 570 MW are already installed, and the remaining 1.2 GW are yet to be commissioned. The operations supported by the bank’s funding range from small-scale hydro plants such as Sahanivotry in Madagascar (15 MW) and Buseruka in Uganda (9 MW), to large-scale hydro projects like Itezhi-Tezhi in Zambia (120 MW) and Bujagali in Uganda (250 MW). “The threat of climate change will not stop hydropower continuing to be a large part of Africa’s energy mix,” says Malama Chileshe, energy economist at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in Lusaka, Zambia.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has Africa’s largest hydropower potential, estimated to be 100,000 megawatts – that is, almost half of the current installed generation capacity on the entire continent, says Chileshe. An estimated $14 billion is required to complete the Inga III hydroelectric mega- dam in the DRC, according to an October 2019 report by the NGO Resource Matters and the Congo Study Group. On completion, the Inga III will become the largest hydropower plant in sub-Saharan Africa. But the DRC, Namibia, Zambia, Ethiopia, Togo, and Sudan are the only African nations that get more than 90% of their power from hydro. “[Hydropower] is barely touched,” says Chileshe.
“It therefore makes sense that efforts should be made to develop the available resource, especially
considering the fact that currently the bulk of power production comes from thermal sources considered environmentally unfriendly.” However, in Africa, the impact of climate change on the power sector and the energy-water nexus cannot be ignored. Any African countries that are dependent on hydro power will be hard-hit in times of drought. For example, as they had in 2015, in 2019 Zambia and Zimbabwe both experienced erratic rainfall patterns, which resulted in low water levels at the Kariba dam; this led to a loss of more than 70% of electricity production from the dam’s hydro power plants.
In Kenya, a drought between 1999 and 2002 drastically affected hydropower generation, including a 25% reduction in capacity in 2000, Chileshe says. Kariba dam, a double-curvature concrete arch dam in the Kariba Gorge of the Zambezi river basin between Zambia and Zimbabwe, was designed to produce 1,200 megawatts on the basis of 50 years of records of the Zambezi river’s flow. In the past 60 years of its operations, Kariba has spilled ﬁve times – illustrating that the original calculations were sound, according to Eddie Cross, a Bulawayo-based Zimbabwean economist. Zambia and Zimbabwe have now doubled generation demand, which has proved to be beyond the dam’s capacity, with water for generation purposes almost running out in 2019, Cross says.
But this year has seen exceptional rains in the Kariba’s catchment areas. At between 55 to 60 billion cubic metres of water inflow, the river’s flow is four times that of 2019, and it is expected that the dam will reach full capacity. “What we are now doing is moving towards using the dam as storage and generating signiﬁcant solar energy from the sun, and running the Kariba generators at night,” he says. “The whole system needs to be managed,” he cautions. “We have to investigate barrages and river flow technologies below large dams.” Cross argues that hydro is still the best choice for Africa – “it’s cheap and clean” – but he advocates using a mix of technologies.
Wind, hydro and solar are also possible, while coal is still critical for baseload, but should beminimised. While Africa produces just 2% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions, climate-related effects
are disproportionately higher in the region, which highlights the importance of a diverse power mix and regional interconnections, Santos says. “Hydropower is a clean power source, which helps to offset the impacts of fossil fuels. Hydropower infrastructure also provides essential adaptation services to reduce the impacts of climate change such as floods and drought,” she told Africa in Fact.
Chileshe says that while developing the hydro potential in places where the rain patterns are still good is important, there is a need for long-term thinking on how Africa will manage the energy- water nexus. Apart from adapting to climate change through diversifying the energy mix to include solar, wind, and geothermal, the continent has to be more interconnected, he argues. “Renewable energies such as solar and wind are associated with issues of variability, due to the constantly changing nature of weather patterns,” Chileshe told Africa in Fact.
These sources of energy need to be coupled with sources that are more reliable, such as hydro, where flowing water is available. Regional integration can also play a role by enabling nations to exchange electricity from regions of plenty to regions of scarcity, he says. For example, when its dry in one region, it may be raining in another. Endeavours to interconnect the power systems of Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia such as the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), begun in 1995, and the Eastern Africa Power Pool (EAPP), begun in 2005, facilitate this type of trade, Chileshe adds. Pairing hydro and renewable sources of power could also help manage the effects of climate change, he suggests.
In Scandinavia, for example, Norway has plenty of hydropower plants, while a neighbouring country, Denmark, has wind. Each of these countries can switch off its own form of generation and rely on electricity from the other’s source, depending on environmental and other conditions. “The hydro potential in the African region could be managed in the same way,” Chileshe says. The AfDB also works with regional power pools to ensure that the sustainable development of hydropower resources is underpinned by strong policy, regulatory frameworks, developed regional power markets, sustainable ﬁnancial and operational performance in the face of climate change challenges, says Schroth.
Santos agrees, saying that if not managed effectively, climate risks associated with dependency on precipitation can lead to shortcomings in terms of a plant’s technical and operational performance. In May 2019, IHA launched a guideline on hydropower climate resilience, which helps decision makers to make effective choices when planning, developing and operating a hydropower project. But, though “cheap and clean”, not everybody thinks hydropower is the right path for Africa. “It is not feasible,” says Siziwe Mota, Africa programme campaigner for International Rivers, which has been assisting dam-affected communities worldwide since 1985, as well as working to protect rivers and the people who depend on them.
“As large dams continue being constructed on the continent, the destruction of river ecosystems and displacement of communities, destruction of livelihoods, and an increase in countries’ debt burden is experienced,” she says. Dams, she adds, also fall short of achieving their intended purpose, especially in the face of climate change and increasingly erratic rainfall, which can reduce energy and water beneﬁts from dams and increase the risks. In March last year, for example, power supply from the Cahora Bassa dam was cut when Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, highlighting yet another climate-induced disaster that makes big dams vulnerable.
“Dams and reservoirs are signiﬁcant sources of carbon dioxide and methane, which are greenhouse gases and should by no means be considered ‘green’,” she told Africa in Fact. International Rivers has worked to ensure that dam developers do not gain access to climate ﬁnance, such as the Green Climate Fund, for dam projects. Unfortunately, Mota says, African countries are using funds that could be invested in clean, sustainable, renewable, decentralised, alternative sources of energy to either construct, rehabilitate or expand dam projects, leaving little room for investment in clean technologies such as wind, solar or micro- hydropower.
“Hydropower’s time has passed, even though Africa has developed only about 11% percent of its potential,” says David Zarembka, the former coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative, who lives in Lumakanda, a small town in western Kenya. “Those [projects] that are only in the discussing, planning, and ﬁnancing stages should be dropped. I think that some of the dams now under construction will never be completed.” Zarembka argues that dams take too long to build, usually a decade or more for a large dam. They can also be hazardous if they breach, as happened recently with a dam in Kenya. “Solar, wind, geothermal, and storage are becoming much cheaper than hydro and can usually be built in a year or two rather than a decade or more,” he says.
The amount of hydropower under construction or in the planning stages in sub-Saharan Africa far exceeds its needs for the next decade or two, he argues. Some of those under construction, such as the Grand Renaissance dam in Ethiopia, will become white elephants, he told Africa in Fact. Facing the future should involve energy policy planning that is inclusive of communities and addresses their water and energy needs, while addressing broader social, economic and environmental concerns, observes Mota. “The key challenge for Africa is not merely to increase energy consumption, but to also ensure equitable access to cleaner energy sources, guided by good energy planning,” she adds.
Carbon emissions: room to grow
There’s big potential for Africa to participate in international carbon markets given its ability to contribute to greenhouse gas mitigation
Women work at a clothing factory funded through the sale of carbon credits in Maungu, near Nairobi, Kenya, 2011 Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP
Carbon emissions trading is a market-based mechanism for trading pollution credits among countries. It includes a range of policy instruments aimed at assisting industrialised countries to achieve
their emissions targets by allowing reductions to take place where they cost the least.
The trade works in several ways: International Emissions Trading (IET), the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and Joint Implementation (JI). The IET system involves a scheme called “cap and trade” in which governments or intergovernmental bodies such as the European Commission (EC) hand out licences to pollute (or “carbon permits”) to major polluting industries within their boundaries.
Industries can then trade these permits with one another to meet their emissions reduction targets.
Cap-and-trade schemes are the most popular way to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) and other emissions. The scheme’s governing body begins by setting a cap on allowable emissions. It then distributes or auctions off emissions allowances that total the cap. Member companies that do not have enough allowances to cover their emissions must either make reductions or buy another company’s spare credits. Members with extra allowances can sell them or bank them for future use. Cap- and-trade schemes can be either mandatory or voluntary.
Africa accounts for only 2% of the trading in the global carbon market. Of that 2%, South Africa and North Africa enjoy the largest portion of the projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the main carbon market resulting from the Kyoto Protocol, with the rest of Africa contributing a paltry 0.6%. According to Oscar Reyes, a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, these ﬁgures render Africa marginal to the carbon market, and the trade has been irrelevant to the continent’s efforts to tackle climate change. According to the World Bank, China has dominated the CDM market since its inception, accounting for about 66% of all contracted CDM supply between 2002 and 2008, and 72% of the market in 2009.
India and Brazil rank second and third on the list of sellers in terms of volumes transacted. One reason why the African carbon market is less attractive relates to how electricity is generated. Access to electricity is a major challenge across much of Africa, with less than 25% – and, in some countries, as little as 5% – of the population enjoying access to grid electricity. Thus, the World Bank has calculated that the 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of 800 million people, generate as much power as Spain, with a population of 45 million.
The lack of carbon-reduction investment opportunities in the power sector and the limited number of carbon-intensive industries outside northern Africa and South Africa implies that the rest of the continent is not well positioned to influence the direction of the debate around carbon trading. The types of projects that could deliver livelihood beneﬁts to Africans, such as renewable and other small- scale energy projects, are not “cheap” options of carbon abatement, and are therefore less likely to attract the big investors. Given the limited opportunities for expanding the carbon market in Africa through the CDM, attention has shifted to projects that can be delivered through the voluntary market.
These include improved stove and tree planting projects, which have been controversial for a variety of reasons, including the difficulties involved in verifying the offsets. According to ecologist Thomas Crowther and colleagues at ETH Zurich, a Swiss university, a tree can remove seven tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during its life. If so, some ﬁve billion trees would need to be planted per year to counter current emission levels globally. Moreover, planting trees to soak up carbon can have detrimental knock on effects. As Robert Jackson argued in a December 2005 presentation at Duke University in North Carolina, growing plantations of fast-growing trees uses a lot of water.
This can reduce “the water available for drinking and irrigation, and harm local aquatic ecosystems”, according to the journal Nature (December 2005). Moreover, “forest soils are saltier and more acidic, compared with other types of plant cover such as crops or grasslands”, Jackson and his colleagues found. Developing countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), remain marginalised in global carbon markets despite signiﬁcant mitigation opportunities in agriculture and forestry. However, Africa has signiﬁcant potential for renewable energy, a key driver of the carbon emissions reduction.
Yet Africa’s share of the carbon markets remains low, as already mentioned. It is puzzling, therefore, that the proponents of carbon trading continue to tout the beneﬁts it offers to the poor in Africa,
in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. For instance, a project in the Bukaleba Forestry Reserve in Uganda, intended to offset the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) of a coal-ﬁred power plant to be built in Norway, clearly illustrates the conflict of interests of the offset company, host countries, and the needs of local communities.
The Ugandan government received a meagre once-off fee of $410 and an annual rent of about $4,10 for each hectare of plantation – an absurdly low lease price, given the huge carbon credits the Norwegian company (Tree Farms) was aiming to sell. The project was also responsible for evicting 8,000 people living on the land from 13 villages, depriving them of their livelihoods, and probably driving them to clear land elsewhere. Africa’s share of voluntary carbon markets is also still small, then, as compared to the rest of the world. It’s a huge shortfall considering the potential beneﬁts of carbon offset revenue for sustainable development on the continent.
However, many African countries, including Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have seen a surge in international demand for offset projects in the voluntary carbon markets such as delivering clean cook stoves and water puriﬁcation devices, which are likely to increase participation in these markets (Bloomberg Energy, 2013). There are several reasons why Africa has failed in the carbon markets. Some scholars have blamed this on uncoordinated marketing efforts, as well as regulatory and policy challenges. They argue that the implementation thereof and global connections can make it a challenge for carbon trading to work.
There have also been circumstances under which baseline-and-credit CDM schemes have resulted in the maltreatment of indigenous peoples and their environment. Other scholars argue that cases of trade fraud and accounting discrepancies have hindered the development of these markets in Africa, with constraints ranging from the structure of the carbon markets themselves to the continent’s own unique situation; the perennial challenges of doing business in Africa have also affected its access to international carbon markets.
Yacob Mulugeta from the University of Surrey’s Centre of Environment and Sustainability says adequate legal and institutional frameworks are lacking, or are weak, and barriers to trade and investment, which may inhibit access to new technologies, and the high investment risks in some African countries, have also resulted in potentially lower prices for CERs. Another barrier to trade, he says, is the overall policy framework in potential host countries, which may include policies not conducive to CDM, for example high levels of taxation, high interest rates, a lack of support for foreign direct investment and uncertainties around ﬁscal policies.
Financing has also been cited as a major barrier to renewable energy and energy efficiency (RE/EE) projects, which deliver carbon emission reductions and sustainable development beneﬁts to low-developed countries in Africa. But Africa’s potential to participate in international carbon markets is large, given its ability to contribute to greenhouse gases mitigation. Its potential for renewable energy generation, climate smart agriculture and extensive forestry sector all provide huge GHG mitigation potential. There are also vast areas of low productivity land where management could be altered to increase carbon stocks and create credits.
Overcoming the challenges that hinder their exploitation could see Africa increase its ability to tap into the international carbon markets. If Africa is to beneﬁt in the carbon market, it will need to start leveraging other sources of ﬁnance, increasing its investments in renewable energy, catalysing the continent’s carbon markets by putting in place regulatory systems, and increasing public funding for seed capital for carbon reduction projects. Africa will need to develop and implement its own climate and carbon ﬁnance strategy, built on the recognition that the continent can contribute most effectively to mitigating climate change by promoting sustainable land-use practices.
The African Union is actively mobilising resources to help members implement the Paris Agreement, but funding challenges abound
Left: Flash floods on the eastern banks of the Nile river, 50 km north of Khartoum, Sudan, 2019 Photo: Ebrahim Hamid / AFP
Land erosion, drought and desertiﬁcation, flooding, the Sahara Desert expanding southward at a rate of 48 km a year, change in the distribution of rainfall, rivers and freshwater resources’ drying-up, among others. This is what Africa’s environment looks like right now. Experts say climate change has already had a devastating impact on food and agriculture, livelihoods, human health and ecosystems. Climate change has generated deadly inter-ethnic conflicts over land and water resources, especially in the Sahel region, and is also said to be triggering mass migration as disgruntled people leave their homelands in search of greener pastures.
A 2018 World Bank report, Groundswell – Preparing for Internal Climate Migration – estimated that climate change will push more than 140 million people to migrate within countries by 2050, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America. Environmental degradation on this scale has exposed the limited ability of many African countries to manage climate change. In response, the African Union (AU) has launched a series of measures aimed at redressing the suffering caused by climate disasters.
The Addis-Ababa-based continental body is mobilising resources to support member countries in their implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), said Leah Naess Wanambwa, Senior Policy Officer at the Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture at the AU. To date, 51 of the 54 UN-recognised African countries, which are members of the AU, have ratiﬁed the Paris Agreement. Currently, four countries are receiving technical and ﬁnancial support through a joint initiative between the AU Commission and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Wanambwa added, without naming these countries.
“The African Commission is in the process of mobilising additional support to cover more countries,” she told Africa in Fact. The continent’s leadership had shown consistent and coordinated resolve to support actions at the country, continental and global levels, said Kwame Ababio, Senior Programme Officer at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)’s Technical Cooperation and Advisory Services, an AU economic development agency.
“For the continent, climate change presents an existential danger, both now and in the immediate future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its ﬁfth assessment report, described Africa as being among the most vulnerable continents to climate change and its impacts,” Ababio told Africa in Fact. He added that the limits of Africa’s adaptive capacity to climate change were exacerbated by widespread poverty and an “overwhelming” dependence on the continent’s environmental resources for livelihoods.
The AU’s high-level approach to supporting affected countries is led by the Conference of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC), the standing committee of the African Union Heads of State and Government Architecture. Implementation, particularly with regard to policymaking and ﬁnding coordinated African positions on issues on climate change, is led by the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN). In recent decades, African countries have sometimes been at odds with one another due to the divergent political agendas of their leaders. This has sometimes affected the continent’s ability to solve its own problems.
Recently, in January 2020, the AU expressed serious doubts about the credibility of the 2019 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and called for the announcement of the results to be suspended. The DRC government, led at the time by Joseph Kabila, rejected the AU’s call on national sovereignty grounds. In the event, in early February the country’s independent electoral commission accepted the results, and the international community, African countries included, accepted the outcome of the DRC’s January elections in the name of stability. “In doing so, they have failed the Congolese people,” wrote Mo Ibrahim and Alan Doss on 9 February in The Guardian.
Analysts believe that Kabila manipulated the results to place his ally Felix Tshisekedi on top, instead of Martin Fayulu, who is thought to have won the election outright. The issue divided African leaders, with politicians holding economic interests in the DRC swiftly siding with Kabila. The gathering economic and social crisis in Zimbabwe that resulted from Robert Mugabe’s long occupation of the top spot is another recent example. While South African leaders opted for quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe, Botswana’s former president Ian Khama openly called on the late Mugabe to step down.
However, African leaders have moved to tackle climate change by uniting and speaking with one voice, said Wanambwa. As an important part of this, in 1995 the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change (AGN) was established at COP1, the ﬁrst UN climate change conference, in Berlin, Germany, to represent the interests of the region with a common and uniﬁed voice. Currently, the African Commission also provides some support to the AGN with regard to its participation in the climate change negotiations which have been ongoing since then, she told Africa in Fact.
The AGN negotiates the continent’s position at the climate conventions at the experts’ level. The African Commission’s support has been aimed at ensuring that experts provide technical backing to the AGN on the different thematic areas under the convention. The African voice at climate negotiations has grown from strength to strength and been united, according to Wanambwa. Ababio agreed, saying the AGN had engaged with a wide range of groupings to arrive at a common African stance in relation to many issues raised within the UN Framework Convention on Climate.
It is critical for Africa’s very survival that climate change be mainstreamed into major economic sectors, he added. African governments were spending an estimated 2-9% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) [estimated between $51.6 billion and $232.2 billion] on tackling climate change, while the annual costs of building resilience could range from $140 billion to $300 billion by 2030,” Ababio explained (The estimation above is calculated on the basis of Africa’s total nominal GDP, which was about $2.58 trillion in 2017).
“Bold climate action” could deliver at least $26 trillion in global economic beneﬁts between now and 2030, according to a September 2018 report, Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century, released by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. In 2007, the AU launched the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative, in partnership with the UN Convention to Combat Desertiﬁcation (UNCCD). The proposed 8,000 km-long line of trees and plants will stretch across the entire Sahel and traverse some 20 countries from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to Djibouti.
It’s an ambitious undertaking that many observers describe as the AU’s biggest climate change project to date. According to the AU, the aim is to reverse land degradation and desertiﬁcation in the Sahel and Sahara region, boost food security and support local communities to adapt to climate change (See also Joe Walsh’s article on page 136).
Such efforts and initiatives appear to have gained support from some independent voices, such as Uganda-born environmental activist William Leslie Amanzuru, winner of the 2019 European Union Human Rights Defender Award. Amanzuru’s organisation, Friends of Zoka, advocates for the protection of the 6,145-hectare Zoka Central Forest Reserve located in northern Uganda. While he praised the AU for what it was doing to ﬁght climate change on the continent, he told Africa in Fact that he deplored the lack of political will shown by most member states. Widespread lack of political will was the biggest problem for the continent’s efforts to combat climate change, he said.
Financial assistance to member states granted by institutions such the African Development Bank (AfDB) for climate change redress was being diverted to political purposes, Amanzuru claimed. The AU needed to design appropriate accountability mechanisms for these funds, he urged. The AU certainly does face serious funding challenges with regard to its capacity to respond to climate change. In 2016, the AfDB estimated that Africa was accessing only about 3% of international climate ﬁnance.
“At the national level, there is inadequacy in governments’ capacity at the human and institutional level to meet international standards and fund eligibility requirements,” NEPAD’s Ababio told Africa in Fact. Without external support, African countries would only be able to implement about 30% of their commitments in terms of the Paris Agreement, he warned.
Africa: agriculture and environment
Climate change will hit Africa hard, but it also offers the continent an opportunity to build resilience and diversify livelihoods
A young man stands among stationary boats at the dried inland Lake Chilwa in Zomba District, eastern Malawi, October, 2018. Lake Chilwa is the second-largest lake in Malawi after Lake Malawi. The dying lake is having an adverse effect on the livelihoods of communities.
Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP
The changes ahead for Africa’s environment, which form the foundation of the continent’s societies and economies, will be challenging, but bright spots abound. Africa is a continent of contrasting environments absent a singular deﬁnition. A mosaic of terrains, the continent weaves together tropical forests, grasslands, savannahs, deserts and mangroves, ice-capped mountains, rivers, lakes and coasts across 55 countries, 1.2 billion people and 30 million square kilometres of land. This enormous landmass contains a quarter of global biodiversity, supports the world’s most prodigious gatherings of large mammals, and its diverse animal, plant and marine ecosystems drive economies and shape societies, cultures and development.
Human actions have played a central role in changing the African environment and its landscape over a long and complex history. African indigenous knowledge and practices include shared cropping systems and zai rain-fed irrigation methods that have mitigated droughts and famine for centuries. Yet, much of the more recent environmental history of Africa is dominated not by stories of Africans managing a challenging environment in harmony with ecosystems, but rather of foreign-driven exploitation of its people and resources, including minerals, fossil fuels, farm and forest produce for export.
Africa today is no less dependent on its environment than in the past. This is especially true in rural areas. Approximately 57% of Africa’s population, or 740 million people, live in rural areas. Agriculture is the continent’s biggest employer, supporting the livelihoods of 51% of the population. The majority of the population working in agriculture is engaged in smallholder agriculture that is undertaken in harsh environmental conditions with limited and highly variable natural rainfall. The high dependence on agriculture and the environment has signiﬁcant and far-reaching consequences, not just for the 740 million rural people of Africa, but for the continent as a whole.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that nearly a quarter of the population, or 224 million people, in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, with 31% experiencing food insecurity. Food shortages and malnutrition result in stunted growth and permanent damage that has long-term impacts. On a continental level, Africa is not feeding itself. According to the African Development Bank, net food imports to Africa are costing on average $35-$42 billion per year and are predicted to reach $110 billion by 2025. As stated by Akinwumi Adesina, the bank’s president, in 2017, “Africa’s annual food import bill weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.” This food bill does not represent investment – these are sunk costs.
The consequence of this heavy reliance on challenging and unpredictable environmental conditions by such a large proportion of the population is a signiﬁcant downward pressure on human and economic development. With two thirds of every country’s human capital beholden to the environment, and more speciﬁcally unpredictable rainfall to provide livelihoods, the opportunities for entry into skilled employment such as teaching, business, the health profession and trading are curtailed.
Climate change is making these challenges worse. The facts and ﬁgures on global climate change are startling. Prior to 1800, the global level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm).
Data drawn from ice cores show that CO2 varied within a relatively narrow range, roughly between 180 and 280 ppm, over the past 800,000 years – never moving above 300 ppm. Currently, CO2 is above 416 ppm. Over this same 800,000 years, methane has never been higher than 750 parts per billion (ppb), but now this gas, which is 22 times more powerful than CO2, is 1,873 ppb. The unprecedented speed and scale of these greenhouse gas emissions brings us into a new era of uncertainty with regards to their impact on the environment and our planet. According to the UN, Africa is the continent that will be hardest hit by climate change.
The key word, however, when attempting to understand climate change in Africa, is uncertainty. One of the challenges in predicting the impact of climate change on the continent is the extremely complex, yet poorly understood, large-scale weather systems that interact across the landscape. While rainfall patterns have been exceptionally difficult to predict, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that temperatures have risen by about 0.5°C over most of the African continent during the past 50-100 years. While this increase in temperature may seem insigniﬁcant, it is accelerating and will have a widespread impact on agriculture.
Many staple crops such as wheat, maize, millet and sorghum are especially susceptible to changes in temperature. Scientists predict that by 2050 the agricultural production of millet and sorghum in West Africa will potentially decrease by 13% in Burkina Faso, 25.9% in Mali and 44.7% in Senegal. Even if a quarter of these decreases in production are actualised, they will amplify shocks and stresses in those countries that today face food insecurity that will have an impact on up to five million people, according to the World Food Programme. Higher temperatures will also likely cause desert areas to encroach further south, also limiting agricultural options.
This may have unexpected consequences on migration and food insecurity, forcing people into conflict and causing an increase in bush meat consumption that may encourage new zoonotic diseases to emerge. Climate change will further impact biodiversity. An assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa, published by the independent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), estimates that by 2100 climate change could have caused the loss of over half of Africa’s bird and mammal species and a significant loss of plant species.
That will have a substantial impact on livelihoods, water and food supply and reduce people’s resilience to shocks and stresses because these ecosystems are the foundation of healthy societies and economies. Another area of clear impact occurring along coasts due to rising sea levels and warming. Sea levels have risen between 13-20 cm over the past 100 years and this is accelerating. Rising sea levels are caused by warming seas that expand as they increase in temperature and melting land-based ice flows into the ocean. Africa has just over 30,000 km of coastline that is undergoing increasing population growth and urbanisation.
These urban areas will be susceptible to more flooding due to storm surges. But warming sea levels are also impacting the environment in other, unpredictable ways. The devastating locust swarms currently destroying crops and livelihoods across East Africa may be linked to climate change. The warming Indian Ocean has contributed to 2019 being one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in ﬁve decades. This drove eight cyclones across the region in 2019 – the most since records began – and enabled desert locusts to leapfrog into East Africa where they have now laid eggs and are hatching in their trillions.
David Hughes of the UN’s FAO, told the BBC in May that they “threaten the food of 23 million people. It is the number one food security issue in East Africa at the moment.” Climate change is not the only factor leading to this uncertain future, however. Many scientists posit that we have now entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. The African environment, for example, has suffered signiﬁcantly from human-led degradation that has accelerated over the past century. This includes the over-exploitation of wildlife and ﬁsheries and natural habitat loss, especially from agricultural expansion.
The Anthropocene is characterised by an increasingly interconnected and accelerating world. These characteristics have signiﬁcant implications for how we understand risks. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how a zoonotic disease that emerged from wildlife to humans in a city in China is having an enormous and rapid negative impact on people and economies in Africa and around the globe. When we combine the interconnected and rapidly changing nature of the Anthropocene with the uncertain impacts of climate change in the context of Africa, the future looks challenging.
African leaders are not to blame for the impacts of climate change against which they must build resilience. Africa has 17% of the world’s population, but has only contributed 4% to global carbon emissions, and much of this has been to supply export products for higher-income countries. But regardless of where the blame for climate change lies, the reality is that the global public and private sectors have a shared responsibility to address the interconnected and uncertain risks it poses.
Domestically, African governments and the private sector need to recognise the impact of climate change and champion green growth that works with nature to build resilience and supports people, especially rural populations, to adapt through improved early warning systems, agricultural investment and diversiﬁed livelihood options. The current Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications provide an opportunity to employ the old adage of “never waste a crisis”. As Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda stated: “We are not making a choice between environment and prosperity; but we are rather looking at how we combine both.”
This is the opportunity to invest in recovery solutions, such as job programmes that directly invest in natural capital like nature-based tourism, that will help the continent to come back stronger. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates, for example, that 3.6 million people in Africa are employed in the nature-based tourism industry, which was worth $29 billion in 2018. These programmes can also build the capacity of local communities and drive forward opportunities for women and youth.
Navigating this uncertain future will also require an improved understanding of environmental and human interactions through investing in science and education.
For Africa to thrive amidst the shocks and stresses that lie ahead, it will need leadership and cooperation from governments, the private sector and people that builds resilience to upcoming challenges by supporting growth and development that protects and works with the environment. As South African climate activist Ndivile Mokoena said: “Climate change is largely viewed as an environmental issue. However, it encompasses everything: it is a developmental issue, it is a human rights issue, it is a social issue.”
Cameroon is one of the most badly hit countries by the coronavirus in Sub-Saharan Africa. By 11 July, the country had recorded 15,173 cases, emerging with about half of the total number of cases in the central African sub-region.
In a bid to flatten the curve of contagion following the country’s first recorded case on 6 March, the government of Cameroon put in place a strategy dubbed 3T: Track, Test, Treat. It set three strategic priorities: stop, or at least control community transmission; check morbidity and mortality, in particular for health personnel; and reduce the impact of the virus on the country’s health system.
Cameroon is one of the most badly hit countries by the coronavirus in Sub-Saharan Africa.
On 24 June, the Ministry of Public Health announced that some 10,100 out of 12,592 confirmed cases of the coronavirus had recovered. It also said it had carried out about 80,000 tests, surpassing a 50,000 target.
On 2 July, the Minister of Public Health, Dr Manaouda Malachie announced that specialised treatment centres following a standard plan would be constructed in all ten regions of the country. The aim, he said, was to strengthen Cameroon’s health system even beyond the pandemic. The centres will be added to a complement of already functional treatment centres for Covid-19, such as those set up at the Yaounde Military Stadium and ORCA Yaounde.
Like other African countries known to be notoriously poorly equipped, Cameroon’s health system was not prepared to handle a pandemic of the magnitude of the coronavirus. A Reuters survey found out that there is an average of less than one intensive care bed and one ventilator per 100,000 people in Africa, unlike 20 to 31 intensive care beds per 100,000 people in the United States. In Cameroon, the Reuters survey shows that there were just 40 ventilators in the country by 7 May, while, according to estimates by the London Imperial College, 2,422 might be needed at the peak of the pandemic which was projected to be reached around mid-June.
Dr Manaouda Malachie announced that specialised treatment centres following a standard plan would be constructed in all ten regions of the country.
To make coronavirus testing and treatment accessible to all Cameroonians, the government has made it free. However, some unscrupulous health personnel and structures have been reportedly charging vulnerable patients. This prompted the Minister of Public Health to put in place a commission, comprising officials of the Ministry of Public Health and the General Delegation for National Security, to investigate corruption in relation to the campaign against the virus.
The country is also in short supply of health personnel such as doctors, critical care nurses, anaesthesiologists and biotechnicians. For instance, Cameroon has less than one physician per 10,000 population. Recently, President Paul Biya signed a decree increasing the retirement age of civil servants of the public health corps to 60 years for categories ‘A’ and ‘B’ (senior), and 55 years for categories ‘C’ and ‘D’ (junior). The aim is to retain their skills, given the shortages of younger staff (themselves due to poor policy and implementation in the long term). Experienced staff are apparently happy to return to work. Serving longer will mean having more time to earn a public service salary before retirement.
To make coronavirus testing and treatment accessible to all Cameroonians, the government has made it free.
In a separate decree, and for the same reason, the Prime Minister Chief Dr Joseph Dion Ngute also increased by five years the retirement age of state medical and paramedical personnel governed by the Labour Code.
In addition, organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the Jack Ma Foundation have been reaching out to Cameroon with material assistance. The country’s health system received 183 oxygen concentrators, which Minister Manaouda said had been dispatched to various health facilities for the care of coronavirus patients and others suffering from respiratory illnesses. However, he did not make public the country’s current capacity to treat the virus.
To help see it through such periods of distress, Cameroon has the long-established Health Solidarity Fund, an emergency fund intended to “provide surge support during health emergencies”. Under a 1993 law, public primary healthcare establishments are compelled to deposit 10% of their monthly revenue into the Health Solidarity Fund (HSF). Hospitals are supposedly exempt, but medical staff say that they too pay into the fund, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Prime Minister Chief Dr Joseph Dion Ngute also increased by five years the retirement age of state medical and paramedical personnel.
But the global human rights watchdog says that too little information is available on the fund’s revenues, disbursement and management.
A medical doctor in the public service, who preferred anonymity, told Africa in Fact that most health facilities have for a long time been making payments into a fund that “is a big sham.” Outside commentators share his view. “Cameroon is the Central African country with the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, yet the government appears not to have disbursed funds from a reserve that healthcare facilities have been paying into exactly for emergencies like this one,” wrote Lewis Mudge, Central Africa Director at HRW, in a 12 June article.
The sudden onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed Cameroon’s glaring lack of resources adequate to respond such a crisis. On 31 March 2020, it launched a Coronavirus Response Special National Solidarity Fund to raise funds from public donation to treat and contain the virus. The minister of public health said about XAF 3.5 billion (about $6 million) had been raised by 14 May, 2020, according to a Business in Cameroon report.
The sudden onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed Cameroon’s glaring lack of resources adequate to respond such a crisis.
Yet medical staff in the country say they have no information about disbursements from the HSF, the already existing fund, according to HRW. Healthcare workers report shortages in thermometers, disinfectants, medicines, ventilators, oxygen and protective gear for doctors and nurses. The human rights organisation says that WHO had declared Covid-19 a pandemic and that this should have been reason to “trigger disbursements”.
The question is why such a new fund is necessary, given that one already exists, and was established more than 25 years ago. This is probably a matter of corruption. Another question is why a new body has been set up to investigate corruption. The answer might be found in the fact that President Paul Biya’s administration has long been accused of using anti-corruption bodies to crack down on political opponents and this new commission appears to be little different.
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