While the African Union has declared 2022 as the year of "Strengthening Resilience in Nutrition and Food Security on the African Continent", realizing this might be harder than anticipated due to climate change impacts on the continent.
Presently, the East African region is experiencing its worst drought spell in four decades that is attributed to La Niña – a natural large-scale cooling of ocean surface temperature in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean – causing dry weather and high temperatures in East Africa. The drought has eroded economic reserves, herd size, and human health and is a major factor behind the alarming numbers of people without enough to eat daily. Yet, the region is one of the least responsible for the climate crisis, emitting collectively 0.1% of global carbon emissions. According to estimates by Oxfam and Save the Children in a report published in May 2022, one person is likely to die of hunger every 48 seconds in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.
The issue is widespread across the continent. As a result, survey data from Afrobarometer – a Pan-African, non-partisan research network conducting public attitude surveys – shows that on average across 34 African countries surveyed between 2019 and 2021 more than half (53%) of citizens say that their households went without enough food at least once in the past year, including 17% for whom this happened "many times" or "always." Overall, majorities in 21 countries reported food shortages in the household. As usual, rural areas (58%) were at a disadvantage compared to the urban areas (47%).
While the climate crisis plays a substantial role in the food scarcity issue in Africa, it is not the only factor that we need to explore. There is also a strong inverse relationship between food security and violent conflict. A 2021 United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report cites eight African conflicts that have impaired food systems and contributed to growing hunger and undernourishment since 2014. When clashes are protracted, they can 'easily destroy the resilience of well-functioning food systems' long after the situation has been resolved.
The report highlights that food insecurity, climate change, and conflict are not independent issues – they're part of an intricate nexus that includes natural resources and other major components of daily life. Climate-induced drought, compounded by conflicts forcing people out of their homes, has decimated people's last ability to cope. The Ukraine conflict has also driven already soaring food prices to their highest level ever recorded, making food unattainable for millions. For example, in South Africa, the latest Household Affordability Index by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity group (PMBEJD) recorded its Household Food Basket at R4,542.93 in April 2022 which is an 8.2% increase from R4,198.93 that was recorded in April 2021.
Both Covid19 and the conflict in Ukraine have been shocks to the global system that demonstrate the deep fragility and interconnectedness of the systems that millions of people rely on to survive. As we move deeper into the climate crisis, shocks from extreme weather and related factors – including the interplay between climate and conflict – will increase further.
It is clear that the climate crisis exacerbates needs and multiplying risks – both from extreme weather events such as drought as well as through conflict and displacement. Therefore, strengthening early warning systems, making new infrastructure climate-resilient, improving crop production, and improving the resilience of water resources management are essential to lessen the impact of the climate crisis. It is crucial to direct resources to mitigation and adaptation initiatives.
Climate change requires the same kind of commitment and resource mobilization directed at COVID-19, which demonstrated what is possible when there is a will for change. Failure to accelerate progress on addressing the climate crisis and preventing conflict in the continent will threaten millions of Africans with starvation.
This Op-Ed was originally published by Cape Times.