Climate Change and African Food Security

The effects of climate change are becoming more and more visible in our daily lives.  The newsfeed is filled with stories about stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, and record-breaking wildfires.  The impact of climate change on the United States is both clear and staggering, but what if I told you that the North America has far less to lose than other continents when it comes to climate change.  The continent that perhaps has the most to lose is Africa.  In fact, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the African continent will be affected more by climate change than any other continent on Earth.  Climate change in Africa has already hindered efforts to create greater food security, and is projected to continue to threaten those efforts in the future. This blog post will examine how climate change directly impacts African food security directly through loss of useable land, and indirectly through water shortages and an increased likelihood of conflict.


It is estimated that 70% of Africans rely on the land for their livelihoods, which makes having arable land vital not just to African economies, but African life in general.  Climate change has brought about a significant threat to arable land around the world.  In fact, according to a 2015 report, the Earth has lost nearly one third of its arable land in just the past 40 years due to climate change.  This is a huge problem for the continent of Africa because, as the availability of arable land is expected to continue to decrease at a rapid pace, the population is expected to boom in the 21st century.  Africa, with a current population of just over 1 billion, is expected to see that number rise to 4 billion by 2100, a number so large that one out of every three people on the planet will call Africa home.  That means that there will be more mouths to feed, making the food security puzzle even more challenging.

To add to the land-use problem, Africa is already strained when it comes to feeding all of its people, forcing farmers to increase crop yields and overuse their soil.  A 2013 report by an agricultural group found that about 65% of Africa’s arable land is too damaged to sustain food production in the future.  Increasingly, Africa’s agriculture and livestock sectors are being asked to produce more with fewer resources and under more difficult conditions.  This makes for serious concerns about Africa’s ability to feed their population.  To make matters worse, the reduction of arable and fertile land is just one of the ways in which climate change will negatively impact food security.

Just as the name would imply, climate change is disrupting weather patterns and altering the climate in ways that some regions are not used to and that many crops cannot grow in.  At their extremes these alterations in weather patterns has brought both flooding a drought; both of which are detrimental to food security.  Though not covered as extensively as drought, flooding is a serious issue in Africa where weak infrastructure is not built to handle flooding.  Earlier this year, flooding in Nigeria killed over 100 people and destroyed rural farming communities.  This is not an isolated incident; flooding in Mozambique in 2000 killed 800 and left 1 million people without a source of food.  On the opposite side of the coin, droughts can also be devastating to food security, and climate change has been tied to an increase in drought frequency and intensity.  One example of this is the drought in East Africa in 2011.  This drought, which drew attention from the international community, lasted more than two years and impacted the entire region.  In Somalia, the levels of malnutrition were six times what the UN considers an emergency, and a disproportionate number of victims were children under the age of 5.  Food security was threatened for 12 million people.  Droughts are not contained to East Africa; Africa as a whole is very susceptible to drought due to its reliance on season-specific rainfall (aka rainy season).


Another impact of climate change that is correlated very closely with food security is water availability.  Africa’s relationship with water is already bad before we talk about the future of water in Africa as a result of climate change.  319 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live without reliable access to a clean water source.  Just as people depend on water for survival, so too do crops and livestock, which rely on irrigation systems from Africa’s natural sources of water (rivers, lakes, glaciers, etc.).  The problem is that those natural sources of water are now threatened by both climate change and pollution.  The story varies by region.  In West Africa, huge populations rely on a few crucial rivers as not only a source of water, but in all aspects of the economy and food production chain.  The River Volta in Ghana is a textbook example of this.  In addition to providing water and irrigation to the entire region, the river is also the lifeblood of the fishing and boating industries.  Additionally, the Akosombo Dam in Ghana is the country’ single largest provider of electricity.

In East Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers act as a natural water tower and provide water to most streams and lakes in the region.  Climate change is melting the glaciers at an alarming rate though, and the IPCC estimates that as much as 82% of the ice that was there when the first measurements were recorded in 1912 have now melted.  If the glaciers are to completely disappear, it would seriously threaten the food security of much of the region.


A final way that climate change is threatening to be extremely detrimental to food security in Africa is through its propensity to lead to violent conflict.  There is a vicious cycle where climate change leads to a lack of resources and lack of resources leads to conflict; both things contribute to food insecurity.  There are many who believe that climate change is to blame for things like Darfur and that similar incidences like occur with greater frequency in the future if climate change is not curtailed.  One model shows that a one-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures will correlate to a 49% increase in the likelihood of civil war.  Civil War and conflict lead to greater food insecurity because they topple food production systems, lead to refugee crises, and disrupt economies.Picture26The world will have to come up with a solution to the issue of climate change or else there could be human suffering on an epic scale in places such as Sub-Saharan Africa.


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