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Climate change becoming a matter of life and death

[Tanzania] Mt Kilimanjaro: Conservation of the mountain and its ecosystem is vital to thousands of Tanzanians, for whom it is a source of water, agricultural livelihood and tourism income.
UN World Food Programme organised a charity walk along the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro on Sunday to raise $100,000 for its school feeding programme in Tanzania. (UNDP)

Mount Kilimanjaro is drying up. Climate change, coupled with widespread deforestation of the slopes, is melting the ice and snow that has crowned Africa's highest peak for more than 11,000 years, dramatically altering the surrounding ecosystem. Scientists warn most of the glaciers may be gone by 2020.

"The situation on Kilimanjaro is only one of the situations around the world that will only get worse unless we take concerted action in the next five to 10 years," said Jim Walker, co-founder and chief operating officer of The Climate Group, a leadership coalition of governments and companies committed to addressing climate change.

Shifts in the world's climate can often have dramatic results. Walker said scientists have already started seeing a decrease in the amount of water supply to the remote lowland areas around Kilimanjaro, which will likely generate a whole range of impacts on rural communities.

"The burning of fossil fuels is happening in the developed world; the areas that are going to bear the brunt are the areas that are the least responsible for the problem," Walker told IRIN.

The startling environmental shift on Kilimanjaro, which straddles Kenya and Tanzania, illustrates Africa's marked vulnerability to climate change. African economies are overwhelmingly agriculture-based, and highly susceptible even to minute variations in temperature and rainfall.

For example, while farmers in the developed world can often make up for short rainy seasons by using man-made water sources, Africa's farmers often labour 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.

"What would be a handleable problem in the United States of America simply wouldn't be a handleable problem if it happens in Rwanda," said Bob Scholes, a global change researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa.

In addition to its high environmental impact, climate change in Africa is made even more dire by the continent's limited resources. The capacity of most African nations 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.

Global warming is caused by increased atmospheric levels of so-called 'greenhouse gasses', such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Industrialisation and human activity - including the burning of oil, gasoline and coal - push the concentration of these gasses 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 in the next century, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Experts estimate that a warming of two degrees in Africa would represent a loss of several percentage points of GDP. Projected warming will be greatest in the Sahel region and central southern Africa, accompanied by more extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods.

The world's most developed countries are the leading producers of greenhouse gasses - 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.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has pledged to make global climate change and alleviating poverty in Africa the focus of Britain's presidency of both the G8 and European Union this year. The Kyoto Protocol also came into effect in February, establishing binding targets for many developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to on average 5.2 percent below 1990 levels.

But even with significant reductions, global warming has already created changes that will effect many generations - meaning that warm areas will tend to get warmer and wet areas wetter. Africa's location in relation to the equator means that its arid and semi-arid areas will get dryer.

"In agriculture, that's particularly bad news," Scholes said. "If it gets wetter, you may have to change your crops, but you may be able to sustain production; but if it gets warmer in dryer areas, it's almost impossible to have increased production."

Scholes also said public health crises - most notably waterborne and insect-borne diseases - tended to increase as water became more scarce.

"Under conditions of poor sanitation and poor water supply, people end up taking their water from the same puddles," said Scholes.

Insect-borne diseases, such as malaria, may become more widespread in areas that experience greater rainfall, as mosquitoes are able to breed more times in each wetter and warmer season. As sea levels rise, Africa's populous river deltas, particularly in Egypt and in West Africa, will also be at risk.

Because of the far-reaching effects of climate change on the developing world, two leading aid agencies recently called for greater investment in the developing world's capacity to mitigate the effects of global warming and natural disasters.

A study by the United Kingdom's Department For International Development (DFID), the government agency that oversees aid to poor countries, predicted that global warming would make natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, increasingly common. At the same time, the International Federation of the Red Cross/Crescent (IFRC) highlighted the cumulative impact of disasters and severe weather fronts on lives and livelihoods in the developing world.

Professor Nyong urged that the developed world take the lead not only in reducing emissions, but in providing greater assistance to communities and ecosystems already struggling to cope with climate change.

"Even if you have a mouth full of golden teeth, and one tooth that is decaying, it still has a negative effect on the mouth," said Nyong.

"Africa's problem sooner or later becomes everyone's problem; people who are contributing to the problem have to bear the brunt of the problem - in Africa we don't have the financial resources, the educational system, the skills, and the technology to do it," he said.

Nyong noted that the solution was not to simply "dump money" by increasing aid to developing countries, but to provide more practical assistance, such as technology transfer, to help local communities cope with the impact of climate change.

For example, he said, rainy seasons have become notably shorter over the last 25 years in West Africa's semi-arid Sahel region, which borders the Sahara Desert. Because of the decreased rainfall, local communities who harvest rainwater for their daily needs are struggling.

"How can we help these communities improve on their rainwater harvesting practices? There should be a way ... Those are the kinds of things I am looking for. Not money."

Unless these kinds of initiatives are undertaken, climate change threatens to undo decades of development efforts, Nyong said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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