The Copenhagen talks on climate change were suspended on Tuesday due to a walk out by the African union. Tensions rose because the African delegates feel that the Kyoto Protocol is being undermined by the richest developed countries. The Kyoto Protocol gives poorer countries different goals to richer countries in terms of carbon emission reduction, allowing them a better chance to develop. The proposed ‘all on the same level’ stance risks undermining the underdeveloped countries’ development efforts in favour of the richer countries’ financial models.
This made me think, “How could West Africa be, or more to the point, how is it currently being affected by climate change?”
Unsurprisingly, as I had already done some research on the subject for a previous blog piece on deforestation
, the findings were rather negative. West Africa is comprised of some of the poorest countries on the planet, and the populations living in the region will no doubt be affected on a larger scale than those of the more developed countries of the world. Not only are these predictions, but they are already a reality and can be witnessed firsthand.
The effects of climate change: Past, Present and Future
A report by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere predicts that world sea levels could rise by up to 2 metres by 2100, with worrying signs of a thaw in Antarctica. "It is now estimated that sea levels will rise between 0.5 and 1.5 meters by 2100, and in the worst case by 2.0 meters. This will affect many hundreds of millions of people living in coastal areas," they said in a report.
But on most of the coastal areas of West Africa, the signs of erosion are already too apparent to ignore. Chunks of the coast line have been crumbling away long before the Kyoto protocol was even initiated.
An article written by Ibe and Quelennac in 1989 demonstrates this: "Coastal erosion already has been reported to reach 23-30 m annually in some parts of coastal West Africa"; and coupled with the effects of pollution and environmental disregard, the damage is even greater as explained in a report by the WRI in 1990; "In Cote d'Ivoire, high erosion rates have been reported in areas off the Abidjan harbor. It also is estimated that about 40% of the mangroves in Nigeria had been lost by 1980; about 60% of mangrove areas in Senegal also have been lost as a result of mangrove clearing, coastal erosion, and increases in the salinity of water and soil."
Moving inland, the effects of climate change will, according to a recent BBC news article
, increase the instances of 'megadroughts' which will affect the lives of millions of West Africans whose alimentary needs are reliant on agriculture and the yearly rainfalls during the 3-4 month rainy season. The region's most recent dry episode was the Sahel drought which claimed at least 100,000 lives, and perhaps as many as one million in the 1970s and 80s; but with the likelihood of man-made green house gasses exacerbating the length of droughts to come, the prospect of coping with a century long 'megadrought' is daunting.
From one climate change engendered extreme to another, floods have become common place in western Africa. Due to the history of droughts in the area, the soil has lost its absorbance qualities and with heavier but sparser rainfalls, communities all over West Africa have been experiencing the devastation of these natural disasters. This year alone, some 350,000 people have been affected in six countries. The United Nations reported that Burkina Faso was the worst affected, and the floods also spread to Ghana, Niger, Guinea, Senegal and Benin. But these are not recent events.
Over the years people have been suffering on a large scale. In 2007, UN aid agencies reported that severe flooding killed some 300 people and displaced 800,000.
Not only are these catastrophic events detrimental to the communities in the short-term, but it also has a more lasting effect. Livelihoods are destroyed in an instance, infrastructure is damaged beyond repair, crops and livestock are drowned and not to mention the water-borne diseases that thrive after the flood water has dissipated.
“It’s a very worrisome situation that further weakens already impoverished populations,” said Hervé Ludovic de Lys, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in West Africa. “Natural disasters have lasting consequences that will have an impact for decades to come and take us back to square one in terms of the fight against poverty.”
The OCHA has noted that climate change is driving these natural disasters, with the region possibly paying a high human cost due to global warming. In response to this situation, during the current UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, West African nations are holding frequent high-level and expert meetings on the issue.
COP15 talks to find a solution
In response to the growing emphasis that climate change and manmade green-house gas exacerbated global warming is actually playing a major role in increasing natural disaster instances in the West African region, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has seen a need for ”drafting a new legal instrument aimed at protecting people displaced by the effects of climate change and who are now outside their country of origin,” according to a declaration from an ECOWAS conference held in the Togolese capital Lome.
The declaration further calls for the ”establishment of a special fund on the impact of climate change on the affected populations” and for the concern by the Western African states over human rights issues in relation to climate change to be included ”in the formulation of a common African position during the Copenhagen talks."
The current debate
During this testing time for our planet and its inhabitants, the COP15 conference has been hailed as a big step forward towards the unity of the world’s perspective towards making a change in order to counteract the effects of man-made greenhouse gas exacerbated climate change.
However, it is the poorest and most underdeveloped countries that will be most affected by the effects of carbon emissions that the developed countries have been pumping into the atmosphere for more than a century.
Let us hope that an agreement will be made which will take into consideration all the ‘more complicated’ elements of the climate change debate and not only the financial stability of already thriving nations.
I wanted to end this post by a quote which reflects the issues of climate change and came across an array of very meaningful ones such as Michael Jacksons ‘Heal the World’ classic and Lenny Henry's "The global warming scenario is pretty grim. I'm not sure I like the idea of polar bears under a palm tree." quote. However, I feel that this one by Barack Obama encompasses the situation that we, as Earth's inhabitants, find ourselves in:
“The issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our own peril. There may still be disputes about exactly how much we're contributing to the warming of the earth's atmosphere and how much is naturally occurring, but what we can be scientifically certain of is that our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe.”
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