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Africans are already facing climate change

Is Darfur the first climate-change conflict? In Kenya, a UN meeting begins Monday to set new fossil-fuel emissions targets.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 6, 2006


As delegates gather Monday in Kenya for a United Nations conference to set new targets to reduce fossil-fuel emissions after 2012, climate change is a present reality for many Africans.

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In Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Chad, people are already seeing the repercussions – including war. The conflict between herders and farmers in Sudan's Darfur region, where farm and grazing lands are being lost to desert, may be a harbinger of the future conflicts.

"You have climate change and reduced rainfall and shrinking areas of arable land; and then you add population growth and you have the elements of an explosion," says Francis Kornegay, a senior analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.

On Sunday, a new UN report predicted that by 2080, global warming could lead to a 5 percent fall in the production of food crops, such as sorghum in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Zambia; maize in Ghana; millet in Sudan; and groundnuts in Gambia.

Between 25 percent and 40 percent of Africa's natural habitats could be lost by 2085, according to the report produced by the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It also said that rising sea levels could destroy an estimated 30 percent of Africa's coastal infrastructure. Coastal settlements in the Gulf of Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, and Egypt could be flooded,

Ironically, Africa produces the smallest amount of the greenhouse gases blamed for climate change.

While it's risky to reduce any conflict to a single cause, a growing number of aid workers, government officials, and experts agree that climate change could certainly stretch the tense relations in many regions to the breaking point. Whenever there is less land available, and less water to make that land productive, then competition for that land can turn violent.

"[Climate] changes make the emergence of violent conflict more rather than less likely," said British Home Secretary John Reid last March. "The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Darfur. We should see this as a warning sign."

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol – aimed at capping greenhouse gas emissions – expires in six years. Many countries, notably the US, have opted out of the Kyoto accord, which called for higher gas taxes and more regulation to reduce the global consumption of fossil fuels by an average of 5.2 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. Many scientists say the use of fossil fuels has raised the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in turn has begun to raise global temperatures.

Some world leaders, such as President Bush, argue that uncertainty over the cause of global warming does not justify the economic costs of switching from fossil fuels to alternatives, such as solar power or fuel cells. But European leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, call for drastic measures, such as a 60 percent reduction in carbon emission by 2050.

But climate change is already hurting people here in Africa, according to a report issued last month by a coalition of British aid groups. The number of food emergencies encountered each year in Africa have tripled since the mid-1980s, the report says. This year alone, more than 25 million Africans faced a food crisis.

Even though temperatures in Africa have only warmed by an average of 0.5 degree C. over the past 100 years, desert lands are advancing into once arable rain-fed areas, and wetter equatorial parts of Africa are getting wetter, often leading to devastating floods.

According to another British report released last week, by former World Bank economist Nicholas Stern, current weather trends suggest that greenhouse gases will boost overall temperatures by 2-3 degrees C. over the next 40 years.

In the West, conflicts such as the fighting in Sudan's Darfur region are often chalked up to ethnic or religious differences. But equally important is the competition for land, as water sources dry up.

"The fighting in Chad, and the fighting in Darfur are the same," says one North African diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The problem is resources, especially water. On one side you have herders. On the other side you have farmers. And with the spread of weapons in the region, it becomes very dangerous and hard to control."

Indeed, in Niger, the government halted its planned expulsion late last month of nearly 150,000 refugees from neighboring Chad. The refugees, many of them Arab cattle herders, had fled fighting in Chad, but their encroachment on the farmlands and water resources in Niger has increased tensions and led to sporadic fighting with natives.