GeoLog

Africa

Geosciences Column: Africa’s vulnerability to climate change

Climate change is set to hit the nations of the Global South the hardest.

Ravaged by armed conflicts, a deep struggle with poverty, poor governance and horizontal inequality, some parts of Africa and other Global South regions are arguably the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Largely reliant on natural resources for sustenance, current and future changes in temperatures, precipitation and the intensity of some natural hazards threaten the food security, public health and agricultural output of low-income nations.

Climate change increases heat waves across Africa

Among other impacts, climate change boosts the likelihood of periods of prolonged and/or abnormally hot weather (heat waves). A new study, by researchers in Italy, reveals that in the future all African capital cities are expected to face more exceptionally hot days than the rest of the world.

The new research, published in the EGU open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, has found that extreme heat waves affected only about 37% of the African continent between 1981 to 2005 while in the last decade, the land area affected grew to about 60%. The frequency of heat waves also increased, from an average of 12.3 per year from 1981 to 2005 to 24.5 per year from 2006 to 2015.

By merging information about the duration and the intensity of the recorded heat waves, the authors of the study were able to quantify the heat waves using a single numerical index which they called the Heat Wave Magnitude daily (HWMId). The new measure allowed the team to compare heatwaves from different locations and times.

Geographically plotting the HWMId values for daily maximum temperatures over five-year periods from 1981 to 2015, clearly showed there has been an increase, not only in the number of heat waves and their distribution across the continent, but also an escalation in their intensity (see the figure below). The trend is particularly noticeable since 1996 and peaks between 2011 and 2015.

Heat Wave Magnitude Index daily of maximum temperature (HWMIdtx) for 5-year periods of Global Surface Summary of the Day (GSOD) gauge network records from 1981 to 2015. The bottom-right panes show the spatial distribution of the GSOD station employed in this study. From G. Ceccherini et al. 2016 (click to enlarge).

The figure also highlights that densely populated areas, particularly Northern and Southern Africa, as well as Madagascar, are most at risk.

The rise in occurrences of extreme temperature events will put pressure on already stretched local infrastructure. With the elderly and children most at risk from heat waves, the health care needs of the local population will increase, as will the demand for electricity for cooling. Therefore, further studies of this nature are required, to quantify the implications of African heat waves on health, crops and local economies and assist government officials in making informed decisions about climate change adaptation policies.

Lessons learned from climate adaptation strategies

In the face of weather extremes across Africa including heat waves, droughts and floods, it is just as important to carefully assess the suitability of climate change adaptation policies, argues another recently published study in the EGU open access journal Earth System Dynamics.

Take Malawi, for instance, a severely poor nation: over 74% of the population live on less than a dollar ($) a day and 90% depend on rain-fed subsistence farming to survive. According to Malawi government figures, one-third of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from agriculture, forestry and fishing.  As a result, the country – and its population – is vulnerable to weather extremes, such as variability in the rainy season, prolonged dry spells and rise in the number of abnormally hot days.

A 2006 Action Aid report states that “increased droughts and floods may be exacerbating poverty levels, leaving many rural farmers trapped in a cycle of poverty and vulnerability. The situation in Malawi illustrates the drastic increases in hunger and food insecurity being caused by global warming worldwide.”

The Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Adaptation Programme (LCBCCAP) aims to enhance the resilience of rural communities surrounding Lake Chilwa to the impacts of droughts, floods and temperature extremes. The lake is a closed drainage lake (meaning it relies on rainfall to be replenished) in the south eastern corner of Malawi.

Perceptions of how climate change affects residents of the Lake Chilwa Basin. From H. Jørstad and C. Webersik, 2016 (click to enlarge).

The authors of the Earth System Dynamics study interviewed a group of 18 women (part of the LCBCCAP programme), back in early 2012, to understand how they perceived they were affected by climate change and whether the adaptation tools provided by the programme would meet their long-term needs.

The women agreed unanimously: climate in the Lake Chilwa Basin was changing. They reported that rainy seasons had become shorter and more unreliable, leading to droughts and dry spells. One of the women mentioned raising temperatures and fewer trees, due to overexploitation.

All those interviewed were part of the women fish-processing group, an initiative which sought to provide an alternative income for the women as traditional agricultural activities became unreliable due to erratic rainfall and prolonged dry seasons.

While the women’s new occupation did provide economic relief, the study authors highlight that the group’s new source of income was just as dependant on natural resources as agriculture.

Throughout the interviews, the women of the fish-processing group expressed concerns that the they thought Lake Chilwa might dry up completely by 2013.

“Yes, the lake will dry up and I will not have a business,” says Tadala, one of the women interviewed in the study. While another local woman said “Yes, lower water levels in the lake is threatening my business.”

Lake Chilwa has a long history of drying up: in the last century it has dried up nine times.  If the lake dried up completely, the women of the fish-processing group would be out of business for 2 to 4 years. Even small drops in the water level affect the abundance of fish stocks.

Lake Chilwa has a history of drying up. These Landsat images show the net reduction of lake area between October 1990 and November 2013. show changes to the extensive wetlands (bright green) that surround Lake Chilwa. These wetlands are internationally recognized as an important seasonal hosting location for migratory birds from the Northern Hemisphere. Credit: USGS

The interviews were carried out in early 2012. The previous two years had seen very limited rainfall. Not enough to sustain the lake, but the situation, at the time of the interviews wasn’t critical. However, throughout the summer of 2012 the lake water levels started falling rapidly prompting the relocation of large groups of lakeshore residents. Those dependant on fishing to support their families were most affected.

The women fish-processing group is a good demonstration of how local communities can adopt low-cost measures to adjust to climate change. At the same time, it highlights the need to assess climate adaptation strategies to take into consideration whether they too are dependent on climate-sensitive natural resources. The new research argues that diversifying people’s livelihoods might provide better long-term coping mechanisms.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and resources

Ceccherini, G., Russo, S., Ameztoy, I., Marchese, A. F., and Carmona-Moreno, C.: Heat waves in Africa 1981–2015, observations and reanalysis, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 17, 115-125, doi:10.5194/nhess-17-115-2017, 2017

Jørstad, H. and Webersik, C.: Vulnerability to climate change and adaptation strategies of local communities in Malawi: experiences of women fish-processing groups in the Lake Chilwa Basin, Earth Syst. Dynam., 7, 977-989, doi:10.5194/esd-7-977-2016, 2016.

ActionAid: Climate change and smallholder farmers in Malawi: Understanding poor people’s experience in climate change adaptation, ActionAid International, 2006.

NASA: The consequences of climate change

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Understanding the Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Heat wave, a major summer killer

Imaggeo on Mondays: Soil and water conservation in the Dogon Plateau, Mali

Velio Coviello, a scientist from the Research Institute for Hydrogeological Protection, Italy, and one of the winners of the EGU 2014 Photo Contest, brings us this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays. He sheds light on his winning image and the problems associated with conserving soils and water in Western Africa… 

This picture was taken on Mali’s Dogon plateau during the dry season, in the course of a late sandstorm day. Between November and March, a hot, dust-laden Harmattan haze frequently persists over the whole of  Western Africa. The Harmattan is a hot, dry wind blowing from the Sahara, carrying large amounts of dust and transporting it for hundreds of kilometers. Here, we see two men drawing water from a deep and narrow well excavated by hand. This latter is a task commonly carried out by children, who climb down to dig the well bottom.

Men and children drawing water for irrigation in the Dogon plateau during a sandstorm. (Credit: Velio Coviello via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Men and children drawing water for irrigation during a sandstorm. (Credit: Velio Coviello via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Mali has a low population density, most settlements are concentrated in the southern part of the country and along the Niger River, where the climate is less harsh and water availability is higher. In the north, Mali is arid and only those who raise livestock can make a living.

One of the most important tourist attractions in Mali is the Dogon Plateau, which sits in the central part of the country, east of the Niger River. The plateau gently descends westward to the river valley and ends in abrupt cliffs on the southeast. These cliffs reach an elevation approaching 1,000 meters at Bandiagara, the main village of the Pays Dogon (Land of the Dogon). These geological, archaeological and ethnological interests, together with the striking landscape, make the Dogon Plateau one of West Africa’s most impressive sites.

Ensuring the population has safe and sustainable access to water is one of the major challenges in the Sahelian region. Facing recurring drought events and encroaching desertification, Sahelian countries are currently heavily affected by climate change. Extreme rainfall events and high rainfall intensity are the main cause of soil erosion and land degradation. Consequently, high rates of soil transport can lead to reservoir siltation and the reduction of water availability for agriculture. To cope with these issues, traditional soil and water conservation (SWC) measures like hillside terracing, permeable rock dams, stone lines, earth basins, planting pits and earth mounds have been regularly employed in the Sahelian area. The Dogon Plateau is home to a broad variety of these measures, implemented to deal with the acute shortage of soil and water. As the population urgently needs support to preserve soil fertility and reduce soil erosion, SWC measures need to be improved and adopted more widely. However, most donors fund short-term projects without considering the maintenance that is needed to ensure SWC measures remain effective long-term.

The first lesson is that there is much to learn from the traditional ways of doing things and SWC projects should always begin by looking at what the people are doing for themselves. Secondly, the international cooperation actors should set up long-term funding programs improving the participation and inclusion of local communities. The final goal would be to ensure the stakeholders are not permanently dependent on international aids.

by Velio Coviello, Research Institute for Hydrogeological Protection (IRPI) and Italian National Research Council (CNR)

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.

GeoEd: An African GIFT Experience

This year the EGU embarked on a new journey into Africa to deliver its renowned Geosciences Information for Teachers (GIFT) programme to teachers in South Africa and neighbouring countries in collaboration with UNESCO and the European Space Agency (ESA). The topic: Climate Change and Human Adaptation. Jane Robb reports on the week’s events…

Set in ‘the windy city’ of Port Elizabeth (or PE if you’re local), in stunning 28°C sun, complimentary blue skies and a dash of wind, we made our way to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s (NMMU) Missionvale Campus to begin the proceedings. Missionvale Campus is situated just outside Port Elizabeth, in the heart of surrounding communities. The campus is intricately connected to these communities, with a commitment to supporting the development of those local to Port Elizabeth through school education and lifelong learning – making it the ideal location for the workshop.

All of us outside the front of NMMU’s Missionvale Campus. Credit: Jane Robb

All of us outside NMMU’s Missionvale Campus. (Credit: Jane Robb)

We were welcomed by Thoko Mayekiso, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Engagement at NMMU, followed by a short introduction given by the co-organisers Sarah Gaines from UNESCO and Carlo Laj from the EGU, and from our host Moctar Doucouré (from NMMU’s Africa Earth Observation Network – Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute, better known as AEON-ESSRI).

To open the workshop, we had Maarten de Wit (from AEON–ESSRI) discuss the importance of geology in understanding climate change. Maarten put geology and climate change into a South African, and broader African, political and social context. He focused on the African concept of ‘observing the present and considering the past to ponder the future’ – a notion that is summed up in the isiXhosa word Iphakade. Maarten introduced Iphakade in the context of Earth stewardship: scientifically informed, ethical and democratic management of both the physical and living systems of our planet. The Earth is a system, but so is our society. Because our society is reliant on the Earth, it has a responsibility to manage it. Therefore, we need to apply our appreciation of our culture and how it will change in the next 50 years to our understanding of how to manage the Earth system.

Echoing the need for systems thinking in managing climate change, Rob O’Donoghue spoke about the South African school curriculum on climate change. Rob highlighted the need for systems thinking to be integrated as a learning enhancement tool. He also echoed the usefulness of the past in learning about the present, not only in a geological context, but in a social one. Africans have lived through climate variability in the past and have met these challenges with innovative solutions in agriculture, animal husbandry, cooking, sanitation and more. Both applied their perspectives on the importance of understanding the socio-cultural aspects of climate change to teaching. They emphasised the need to help relate climate change to children, and stop it seeming scary and impossible to manage. By using stories, art, music and other culturally informed methods we can make understanding and responding to climate change more manageable for future generations.

During lunch (with amazing live local music providing the background to our delicious South African cuisine) we discussed what the teachers thought of the workshop so far. What concerned the teachers most was the need to make climate change accessible to their children without forcing an impossible change on them. In many African countries, including South Africa, people are aware that their daily practices are harming the environment. However, unlike developed countries, these practices are essential to survival on a daily basis. The teachers simplified the issue: environment is directly linked to survival in this part of the world. These people do not have the luxury to change their daily practices. If anything, this highlighted the need for workshops like this, which help teachers find different ways to engage the next generation with climate change in a way that means they can continue to develop.

Sally Dengg explaining an experiment about thermohaline circulation to the teachers. For some of our practicals we had to improvise with materials commonly available to teachers – instead of test tubes we used plastic bottles. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Sally Dengg explaining an experiment about thermohaline circulation to the teachers. For some of our practicals we had to improvise with materials commonly available to teachers – instead of test tubes we used plastic bottles. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Carl Palmer from the South African based Applied Centre for Climate and Earth System Science reiterated this point in his talk on how climate change affects us. He highlighted the fact that poor communities cannot deal with climate change in the way developed countries can. And yet, Africa is a large continent, rich in unique landscapes and biodiversity, with an incredible diversity of people too. As Guy Midgely from the South African Biodiversity Institute also discussed, Africa contains a wealth of natural resources as well as a wealth of variable climates and people. Carl emphasised the need to excite and inspire our children about what Africa has to offer, encouraging them to choose science. Not just geoscience however: we need them to address the issues of sanitation, malnutrition, health and politics in tandem with climate to make a real difference. In other words, rather than a threat, climate change is an opportunity to engage kids with science.

To compliment these insightful approaches to climate change education, the workshop integrated several presentations on the science behind climate change and areas where climate change impacts are being felt, including agriculture (Bernard Seguin), water (Roland Schulze), ocean changes (Jean-Pierre Gattuso), as well as remote sensing of the atmosphere (Michael Verstraete). These presentations opened up the discussion for how to teach children specifically about the scientific aspects of climate change: what happens to these different Earth systems in a changing climate, and how can we transfer this knowledge to children in the classroom? For the teachers, although there was a lot of information packed into a tight curriculum, this was incredibly valuable as it catered directly to the GIFT workshop mantra: reducing the time from research to textbook. These presentations gave teachers the opportunity to hear about the science directly from the scientists.

The World Challenge Game in action. ‘Families’ had to colour in sheets to make money for their countries within a time limit. (Credit: Jane Robb)

The World Challenge Game in action. ‘Families’ had to colour in sheets to make money for their countries within a time limit. (Credit: Jane Robb)

In addition to these presentations, we were also treated to demonstrations and practical exercises by Ian McKay, from the University of the Witwatersrand and the International Geoscience Education Organisation, Sally Dengg from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and Carl Palmer. We experienced interactive discussions, marshmallows and chemical structures, solar cookers, production of carbon dioxide, acidifying oceans and exploding hydrogen balloons. To finish up the workshop, we watched the film Thin Ice and ended with a critical discussion on how the teachers will disseminate what they have learnt to their colleagues, students, communities and councils.

What we were able to take away from the workshop was the need for a paradigm shift in the way we think and educate about climate change in an African context, where the participants helped us understand how to make the global local. Climate change isn’t just a scientific issue; it is implicitly related to people, politics and survival. To engage children with climate change science, we need to develop a systems thinking approach, balancing global responsibilities while maintaining healthy lifestyles and valuing the cultures and perspectives of the very people we are trying to engage.

By Jane Robb (EGU Educational Fellow), Sarah Gaines (UNESCO) and Carlo Laj (Chair of the EGU Education Committee)

Enhancing Earth science education in Africa

In 2008 UNESCO launched the Earth Science Education Initiative in Africa in response to a call from African governments to aid them in closing the ever widening gap between their need to further exploit the continent’s natural resources and their skills and research facilities. Reacting to this call, UNESCO first set up a series of scoping workshops across the continent to understand African capacities and needs. The workshops focussed on educational structure in the geosciences, research facilities and relationships with industry in order to identify an appropriate role for UNESCO. The result was a clear need for stronger action at the root of the problem: education.

A proper understanding of the Earth sciences is essential for sustainable development across the world, with research applications ranging from atmospheric to agricultural sciences and knowledge of the deep Earth. And yet, the scoping study found that Earth sciences are underappreciated as an essential part of development by governments, policymakers and development organisations across the world. In response, UNESCO identified the need to expand their reach through both formally and informally educating about the geosciences across Africa, and the need to go beyond the traditional topics covered in geoscience disciplines and focus on the multidisciplinary ‘real life’ applications.

Ensuring sustainable development involves understanding tectonic geological processes, the climate, surface of the Earth and the multiple interactions between them. (Credit: Joyce Schmatz)

Ensuring sustainable development involves understanding tectonic geological processes, the climate, surface of the Earth and the multiple interactions between them. (Credit: Joyce Schmatz)

UNESCO’s scoping workshops found that the geosciences are only introduced into African education schemes at university level, which automatically lowers the numbers of students who enrol in these subjects due to lack of exposure. It also may be a result of this that African geoscientists are so isolated in their fields, with little contact or collaboration between research facilities, which themselves are commonly under equipped and few and far between. In a complementary study undertaken by UNESCO in 2011 it was found that many articles published in African journals were written by geoscientists in only 10 countries, with fewer authors per article than those published across the world. The study confirmed that there needed to be a strengthening of geoscience education at university level, and more done to ensure there is more collaboration between geoscientists across the continent.

The final, major issue identified by UNESCO in their scoping study, causing a lack of geoscientific expertise in sustainable development efforts was the shortage of strong connections between universities and industry. Without these crucial relationships, the students who do graduate from universities with outstanding degrees in geoscience do not necessarily make it into the roles that can make an impact on sustainable development. This issue is serious enough that industries have begun to build their own schools to train employees, or employ people from outside of Africa, meaning they lose the important local knowledge needed for development.

By Jane Robb, EGU Educational Fellow

In collaboration with UNESCO and ESA, the EGU are running the first Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) workshop in Africa in February. You can find out more about the workshop on the EGU website. Secondary-school science teachers can apply to participate in the South African GIFT workshop by filling in an online form or sending their application materials to sa-loc@egu.eu by January 24. The application information is available for download in PDF format, a document which also includes further details about the UNESCO-EGU-ESA GIFT workshops.

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