The World Food Programme, the world's largest humanitarian organisation, is on the front line of the fight against climate change.
In an interview with WFP web writer Michelle Hough, WFP’s weather expert Menghestab Haile' explains why climate change is destined to hit WFP's beneficiaries - the world's poor and hungry - hardest.
The earth was parched and cracked after years of erratic rains. Crops had failed, cattle were dying. People would soon follow.
After several earlier warnings from WFP, the writing was on the wall in January 2006: the Horn of Africa was on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe due to severe drought.
Fast forward eight months. A “wall of water” washes away people’s homes and livelihoods as flash floods hit the Dire Dawa and Omo areas of Ethiopia, killing hundreds of people.
In November, more floods submerge parts of Ethiopia and force up to a million people in Kenya and Somalia to rely on food aid.
Africa has been on a “weather roller coaster” for some years, experiencing droughts which caused millions to be hungry in Niger and Southern Africa, while floods put parts of countries such as Mozambique and Burundi under water.
“Climate change in Africa is a life or death situation,” says Menghestab Haile’.
While most of us in the developed world are pondering the melting polar ice-caps and rising sea levels or wondering,
I think global warming will affect everyone. The difference is our capacity to respond and adapt to it
more prosaically, if we’ll ever get another white Christmas, the poorer parts of the world are already up to their knees in the muddy waters of global warming.
“With climate change we can expect more extreme weather conditions, reductions in total rainfall, shifts in the rainy seasons, changes in the length of rainy seasons and temperature increases,” says Menghstab.
He also says that with these variations, diseases such as malaria may become increasingly common. Mosquitoes could find more breeding grounds in newly damp environments and temperature increases may also see them breeding in areas previously uninfested.
If you rely on traditional agriculture, and thus rainfall, for your livelihood – as do an estimated 70 percent of Africans in poor countries - and you live a hand-to-mouth existence with no safety nets, late rains or sudden floods can leave you destitute.
When you are vulnerable and unable to adapt to these changes either because you are desperately poor to begin with or illness means you can’t work, it may take years to get back on your feet.
“Even normal rains won’t bring dead livestock back to life in the north or provide an immediate harvest in the east,” said WFP Kenya Country Director Tesema Negash, speaking during last year’s drought.
Menghestab says WFP adopts a series of emergency measures when disasters such as the ones in the Horn of Africa strike to ensure lives are saved, livelihoods are protected and people benefit from good nutrition and education as an investment in the future.
But these emergency measures don’t tackle climate variations
“I think global warming will affect everyone. The difference is our capacity to respond and adapt to it,” he says.
He emphasises that in places like the Horn of Africa, hunger and malnutrition need to be dealt with first, and then efforts should be focused on helping people adapt to erratic weather patterns.
Wealth and technology mean that the developed world has far more resources than poorer countries to help it deal with climate variation. In some cases, attempts by richer countries to reduce global warming may indirectly affect those who are already at its mercy.
For example, unless carefully managed, increased demand for some biofuels could drive up food prices - creating problems for poor countries. In the long-term, the pursuit of profits could lead farmers to grow crops intended for biofuel rather than food.
WFP meanwhile has a variety of programmes across Africa which focus on essential areas for adaptation, such as water.
People receive food in exchange for working on WFP food-for-work projects such as “haffirs” in Sudan – a traditional reservoir for harvesting water. Nigeriens dig crescent-shaped irrigation ditches which help retain water and boost crop yields in years of poor rains. Other environment-orientated FFW projects include soil conservation and reforestation.
WFP launched an innovative “drought insurance” policy for Ethiopia in 2006 to protect poor people against extreme drought. If rainfall proves to be continuously below average over a specified period, the policy pays out to vulnerable people to ensure they don’t exhaust their coping mechanisms, for example, by selling their cattle to buy grain.
Casting his eye to the future, Menghestab thinks technology could offer a life raft for Africans suffering the effects of climate change.
He thinks adequate investment in sustainable agriculture, an expansion in technology and a boost to agri-business would start to generate wealth which would reduce Africans’ vulnerability to erratic weather patterns.
He says lack of action in the face of climate change in Africa could lead to a future where wars are fought over ever-scarcer resources.
Cross-boundary rivers such as the Nile could become the subject of disputes between countries if its waters started to recede.
Menghestab says at the current rate of change, things look gloomy for some African countries. Climate change, he says, is something which we are all going to have to deal with. But for Africa, a key factor for whether it will be able to adapt lies in its sustainable development.