A mother holds her malnourished daughter in Lokitaung, Turkana, Kenya, 12 August 2001. (EPA/Dai Kurokawa)

By Sue Landau

Although there have been few headlines, Africa is facing its worst food shortage since 1985. And the culprit is not so much armed conflict as it is climate change.

The United Nations has forecast that up to 50 million Africans could be hungry by Christmas. Southern Africa and much of East Africa have been hard hit by a second year of the El Niño warm climate cycle, which has disrupted seasonal rainfall and led to crop failures.

This pattern of harsh droughts and heavy floods has become established in all parts of Africa, making life miserable for millions. With 70 percent of its people dependent on rain-fed agriculture, Africa is the most vulnerable continent on our warming planet.

“Emerging research indicates that climate change could drive down yields of staples such as rice, wheat, and maize roughly 20 percent by 2050,” journalist Tim McDonnell wrote in Fulbright National Geographic Stories in September.

Worsening and widespread drought could shorten the growing season in some places by up to 40 percent, McDonnell said.

Climate change threatens to reverse successes in fighting poverty.

Food production and hunger got little attention at last December’s United Nations Climate Conference in Paris, known as COP 21, where a landmark global agreement on fighting climate change was hammered out.

But at COP 22 in Marrakesh this November, African agriculture is top of the agenda, spearheaded by a new organization, the Initiative for Adaptation of African Agriculture (AAA).

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“If the international community does not take the measures necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, an environmental, economic and human catastrophe is bound to befall the African continent,” the AAA said in a White Paper published in September.

Climate change threatens to reverse early successes in fighting extreme poverty since the turn of the century. The continent’s last large-scale famine was in Ethiopia in 1984-85.

Temperatures in sub-Saharan Africa are forecast to rise between 1.5°C and 2.5°C by 2050, increasing the risk of drought and flooding, according to the 2014 United Nations Africa Status Report. The continent could lose two thirds of its arable land by 2025 because of climate change, the AAA said in its White Paper.

The impact of a changing climate represents a huge economic hit. Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is forecast to fall 1.4 percent each year, and the costs of adapting could go as high as three percent of GDP each year until 2030, the AAA said.

Africa no threat to efforts to curb global warming.

So agriculture is key to developing Africa’s climate resilience. But the continent also desperately needs power generation. It needs cities with infrastructure that copes with flooding, particularly as its urban dwellers are forecast to double by mid-century.

Two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s population, some 620 million people, has no access to electricity, and those that do often have an unreliable, expensive supply. Yet Africa is well supplied with coal, oil and natural gas and has solar, wind and hydropower resources. In recent years China has emerged as a big investor in Africa’s power sector.

But could developing these resources threaten goals to rein in global warming?

The answer is no, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which ran a scenario for energy development out to 2040. According to that scenario, Africa would account for only three percent of global carbon emissions by then. And 56 percent of planned Chinese investments up to 2020 are in renewables, of which about half are in hydropower.

Over the past few years there has been a rush to set up initiatives for electrifying Africa. The Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) was launched at COP 21 a year ago. Energies pour l’Afrique was launched in March 2015 by Jean-Louis Borloo, a former French environment minister. And in 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration set up Power Africa, which has just raised $1 billion for cleaner energy projects.

The re-greening of the Sahel

The task now is to deliver. At COP 22 this November, a group of poorer countries plan to launch the LDC Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiative (REEEI), which will complement AREI and aims to scale up investments in poorer countries.

Of course, Africa did not wait for COP 21 to tackle hunger and land degradation. For example, in 2007 the African Union launched an ambitious project, called the Great Green Wall, to plant trees across 7,700 kilometers from Senegal to Ethiopia to halt desertification in the Sahel, the semi-arid belt south of the Sahara desert. Funding has been pledged, and so far 15 percent has been planted, mostly in Senegal.

But in the Sahel, farmers themselves have been making significant advances for decades. “The re-greening of the Sahel began when local farmers’ practices were rediscovered and enhanced in simple, low-cost ways by innovative farmers and nongovernmental organizations,” according to a 2009 article for the International Food Policy Research Institute.

One particular technique, planting in pits, was revived in 1980 by a Burkina Faso farmer, Yacouba Sawadogo, who began to use an ancient method known as zaï. This, plus building stone walls along the contours to stop rainwater runoff and soil erosion, have radically changed farming in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. New techniques of microdosing fertilizer have also increased yields dramatically in West and Southern Africa.

Africa is home to some spectacular renewable energy projects.

However, even as progress has been made, the heat and erratic rainfall associated with climate change have thrown the continent back in terms of food security, which is once again an emergency.

On the electricity front, things are only just getting going. Chinese companies have built 30 percent of the new capacity in sub-Saharan Africa in the past five years, according to the IEA. And Africa is home to some spectacular renewable energy projects.

Two gigantic solar plants using concentrated solar power (CSP), in which huge parabolic mirrors rotate to capture the sun’s rays, are just taking shape in Morocco and Tunisia. The first tranche of Morocco’s plant began generating in February, and the country hopes it will supply most of its energy needs from 2018. The Tunisian plant is to send clean power to Europe via undersea cables.

The Lake Turkana wind farm in Kenya is due to start feeding electricity into the grid later this year, and ultimately will generate 18 percent of the country’s electricity capacity. And the massive Bui Dam on the Black Volta River in Ghana, co-developed with Sino Hydro of China, came onstream in 2013, providing both electricity and irrigation.

Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.

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