How Climate Change Is Deepening The Humanitarian Disaster In East Africa

04/05/2017 12:16 BST | Updated 04/05/2017 12:16 BST
CGIAR Climate/Flickr


Photo credit: Tina Hillier/Oxfam

While some still deny the severity of climate change and question the need to combat it, others are struggling for their life as climate change makes a bad situation worse. Today in East Africa, climate change is intensifying a deadly mix of drought, poverty, chronic malnutrition, weak governance and conflict, which has left eleven million people on the brink of starvation.

"We have never seen drought like this before. There is nothing here. Nothing. This is an empty place without pasture or water in any direction you go. We survive because of the livestock. But now they have died".

Jama's herd of 300 goats and sheep has been reduced to just nine by the deadly drought that is gripping parts of East Africa. As a nomadic pastoralist Jama's livestock are not just his means of making his living, but also food for his family, their savings, their future.

Jama's story was one I heard repeatedly throughout my recent visit to the Somali region in Ethiopia.

Exceptional numbers of people have lost most, if not all of their livestock during this drought, which is now entering its third year. In Somalia, where a famine warning has been issued, ten million of the country's 18 million livestock are estimated to have died.

Experience shows that when livestock die, human lives usually follow. Lives are already being lost, but the worst is yet to come. The current rainy season which runs from March to June, has been slow to start and is forecast to be poor. Even if the rain comes it will take months for crops and pasture to grow, and with rain comes increased risk of cholera and other diseases spreading.

Eleven million in people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are facing starvation. In Somalia the number of people dependent on emergency food aid has doubled to over 6.2 million. Behind these numbers are unimaginable stories of struggle and loss like Jama's.

Increasing scientific evidence shows climate change is helping fuel this crisis. The link to lack of rainfall is debated, but there is widespread agreement that abnormally high temperatures experienced in parts of the region hardest hit are linked to climate change. And higher temperatures have heightened the harmful effects of low rainfall.

The heat has contributed to crops withering in parched, cracked soil. In parts of northern Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, poor rains last year combined with higher temperatures over the past six months have led to a significant loss of soil moisture and has dried out fodder for most of the region's pastoralists.

Oxfam and other agencies rightly lament this crisis as a 'man-made tragedy', caused by people and policies as much as drought. Chronic poverty, malnutrition, slow international action and weak governance, have undermined people's ability to grow, gather or pay for food. But the human fingerprint of climate change can also be found on the extreme weather driving this disaster.

Today global average temperatures are one degree above pre-industrial levels and the effects in East Africa and many other parts of the world are profound. Even if global temperatures are limited to the 1.5 or well below 2 degrees set out in the Paris Agreement, inertia in the climate system means East Africa still faces higher temperatures and decades of disruptive climate change. The impact temperature increases alone will have on agriculture and livestock will be significant, regardless of rainfall changes.

East Africa faces a race against time to adapt to a changing climate and support people whose lives are so precarious to changes in the weather. In a changing climate we can expect the unexpected - more extremes, more often. Severe drought should no longer be considered exceptional in this part of the world.

There can be no stronger call to climate action than suffering on this scale. As international leaders grapple with how to respond to Trump's roll back on action to tackle climate change, evidence of climate change's role in the unfolding catastrophe in East Africa and elsewhere should be front of mind. When the reality of climate change and need to act on it is denied, the lives of the world's poorest are ignored.

In the coming weeks and months, at the G7, G20 and elsewhere world leaders need to reaffirm their resolve to accelerate action on climate change and support vulnerable countries and communities to cope with climate extremes they did least to cause.

Climate change is not a hoax or a distant future threat. It is real, it is happening now, and it is helping fuel the humanitarian disaster in East Africa.