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Africa has no safety net

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Monday, 7 December 2009 10:38

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis from the people making the news in Africa each week.

As world leaders and climate change experts gather at the UN’s Climate Change summit in Copenhagen this week to negotiate a way towards a greener global future, Africa is already battling the effects of higher temperatures and rising sea-levels. In an interview with The Africa Report’s Nicholas Norbrook, Jakkie Cilliers, head of South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies, says urbanisation will be a major coping mechanism for Africa against the effects of climate change. But urbanisation is not necessarily bad, and could trigger much more economic growth.

To read more on what urbanisation and climate change have in store for Africa, read an extract from 1960-2060: A hundred years of Africa, from our current edition ‘Africa in 2010’.

The Africa Report: To what extent do you think Africa is actually ready to adapt to the affect of climate change on its agriculture?

Jakkie Cilliers: Climate change presents Africa with a tremendous amount of challenges. African economic growth – which is on an upward trajectory – is going to ‘bump up’ against the impact of climate change. Africa clearly has to adapt, which means control some of its emissions, particularly countries like South Africa, which is quite a big emitter by global standards.

But the major challenges are really going to be in trying to mitigate some of the effects, and here the issue is simply lack of infrastructure, lack of coping capacity both in rural and in urban areas. We’re going to see a tremendous amount of urbanisation in the years that lie ahead. In one sense, urbanisation is going to be quite a major coping mechanism for many Africans.

One can also argue that populations over centuries have been adapting to changes in climate, and changes in their external environment – that’s part of humanity. The problem is simply that African populations have got no safety net to fall back on.

Of all the continents, the information on the impact of climate change on Africa is the least reliable. You may be aware that there is a massive initiative to establish a few thousand additional climate-monitoring stations across Africa, to try and beef up the amount of information that we have to the same levels available in North America, Europe and even in much of Asia. So a lot of the predictions on climate change are based on models, without real empirical data on what in actual fact is happening.

But the same holds true for Africa as it does for much of the rest of the world. We’re looking at increases in temperature of more than two degrees, and that would mean that in certain areas of Africa, we’re looking at increases in temperature of four to nine degrees – even at a two degree [global] warming. And we’re looking at sea-rise levels that probably are going to exceed two metres by the end of the century.

Now these are going to have massive, massive implications for the continent if there isn’t a very dramatic shift in the adaptive capacity and the coping capacity of African countries. At the moment there is a limited amount of progress in that respect. Without a doubt climate change presents Africa with probably its most serious challenge compared to any other development. The impact on the continent is really going to be extremely serious.

Will the political ramifications of an exploding and young urban population alongside even stagnant food production be great?

Yes it could be. Again, one of the scenarios for African development is that it’s going to be partly an agricultural led future. Africa is not going to industrialise the way that we’ve seen the developed world industrialise. It’s going to find it difficult to compete with India and China. It’s probably going to follow a different developmental path into the decades ahead.

It’s not possible to convert Africa’s youth bulge into a worker bulge. For the majority of young Africans already born or going to be born, there are no formal educational systems to educate them. If you look at internet and cellphone penetration and the impact they are having on the population: in a sense, people are teaching themselves to be, to a degree almost literate, or at least cellphone literate, text messages and so on.

Throughout the world, population growth and urbanisation have been the basics of economic growth and development, and therefore it is not necessarily a ‘bad’ [thing]. It could in actual fact trigger many of the economic and governance changes that we all are hoping for on the continent.

It’s important not to see population and urbanisation rates as necessarily bad, because that is what fuelled development in the rest of the world historically. In actual fact there is a direct correlation between the extent of urbanisation in Africa and any place in the world, and GDP per capita. Those countries that are more highly urbanised have higher GDP per capita. That’s an important fundamental not to lose sight of.

Already large African population groups in urban areas live in slums and informal settlements. So the big challenge is going to be management of urban spaces.

Would cheap energy help the difficulties facing African agriculture?

Both cheap energy and infrastructure. The short answer to that is that Africa is in actual fact an energy surplus continent. Our problem is that all our energy is either not utilized or is orientated at export – particularly oil and gas. But you know about the Grand Inga scheme [a hydroelectric dam project in the Democratic Republic of Congo], which has got sufficient energy to provide the whole of Africa. Look where Europe is looking for its renewable sources of energy – it’s in the Sahara, the Desertec scheme.

The same holds for water. Africa’s a hot, dry continent but in actual fact it has got roughly the same amount of water as any other continent, it’s just there are no means to distribute the water. And yes there are certain areas of the Sahara that are extremely arid, but as a gross generality: no absence of energy, no absence of water.

So it really is just a question of sorting the infrastructure out?

It is sorting the infrastructure out. But what comes first, development or infrastructure? Africa’s development will occur the same way as the development of Europe, North America, China and India, and that is that as population densities increase and concentrations increase, competition increases and you have not only potentially more conflict – which is what most people focus on – but, much more importantly, much more development.

That’s really what’s going to happen in Africa. The issue that’s going to drive the continent is this increased high-population density and urbanisation rates, because Africa still, is a largely rural continent.

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