Archive for the ‘Environment and Humanitarian Disasters in Africa’ Category

One Step at a Time – by Gwynne

September 21, 2011

One Step at a Time



by GWYNNE[2]


True change in environmental issues will involve more than raising awareness about the issues. Adaptation to environmental vulnerability is possible through a combination of understanding of the issues and appropriate measures. The way forward relies on many interventions that need to be in place immediately. As is the urgency of intervention there is need for as many stakeholders to be involved. The socio-economic situation in Africa aggravates the impact of environmental disasters. Therefore poverty reduction and environmental concerns need to be dealt with simultaneously as any progress made in either sector would easily be undone by a collapse in the other. This article seeks to highlight some generic solutions found in environmental studies dialogue with particular reference to the environmental issues referred to in previous articles[3].



As noted environmental issues are a threat to development. Socioeconomic challenges such as widespread poverty, rapid urbanisation, conflict and limited governance in some areas make dealing with environmental disasters difficult. Conversely environmental disasters merely exacerbate existing problems. The only solution is therefore to deal with both concerns simultaneously; a tragedy in either quarter would undo any progress made in another area if not concurrently managed. An example: desertification occurs where cultivation, inappropriate agricultural practices, overgrazing and deforestation cause land degradation, it is in fact a result of much deeper underlying forces of socio-economic nature, such as poverty and total dependency on natural resources for survival by the poor. The poor inevitably become both the victims and agents of environmental damage.


Regional level: Better data will allow policymakers to identify existing migratory trends, determine the linkages with climate change-related events, and prioritise action in expected areas. Channels of communication are particularly important in strengthening regional and trans-regional networks in mitigating and responding security risks such as migration. The Regional Environmental Education (EE) Programme[4] is to enable environmental education practitioners in the SADC region to strengthen environmental education processes for equitable and sustainable environmental management choices. This will be achieved through networking, resource materials, training capacity, and research and evaluation.


National level: An example here are the National Action Programmes to combat desertification (NAPs). They are important tools in guiding the implementation, donor coordination and monitoring of efforts in combating desertification and poverty reduction. As of April 2007, NAPs had been developed and adopted by 42 African countries. The NAP process was powerful in awareness raising, educating and mobilizing various stakeholders and therefore empowering them on drought and desertification issues. It also triggered and resulted into institutional and legislative reforms supportive of effective measures for tackling drought and land degradation. Some countries have set up National Desertification Funds (NDFs) as part of the NAP process. The NDFs serve as local and easily accessible sources of funding for implementation of NAP priorities[5].


Many African countries have formulated and are implementing national environmental policies, strategies and plans. In many countries, National Environmental Action Plans (NEAPs), which were first formulated in the early 1990s, have provided the broad policy framework for coordinated management and protection of the environment. They articulate among other things, policy interventions for conservation and sustainable utilization of natural resources, including land management and integrated resource planning. These include improving farming skills; improving the supply, replication and dissemination of technologies; ensuring access to land and tenure security; resolving problems of drought prone regions; and improving agricultural marketing systems, pro soil and water conservation, traditional agro-forestry and water harvesting[6].  


Greater national budgetary concern is needed to assess and estimate the socio-economic implications of environmental vulnerability, as contrasted to a more narrow environmental issue, and thus attract attention of economists and development planners. There is need to integrate national responses to climate change fully into economic planning and management at all levels that needs to be reflected in the national budget. Given the long life of major infrastructure such as dams, greater consideration of changes in the next 20, 30 or 50 years is needed. In particular, it is necessary to avoid that adaptation measures have negative unintended effects or increase horizontal inequalities. Improving inter-sector cooperation between various ministries will be important to minimise such risks.


Combating low food reserves and poverty reduction can be done in chorus by changing from subsistence farming to commercial farming. Enhancing food security requires agricultural production systems to change in the direction of higher productivity and also, essentially, lower output variability in the face of environmental disaster that threatens food security. Increasing production allows for adequate food supply and even surplus for storage for periods when environmental disasters threaten, disrupt or destroy crops. In order to stabilize output and income, production systems must become more resilient, i.e. more capable to perform well in the face of perturbing events. More productive and resilient agriculture requires transformations in the management of natural resources and higher efficiency in the production system (e.g. water use, soil nutrients, and genetic resources). These transformations are particularly needed in smallholder systems that are the main source of food and income for most of Africa’s poorest people[7].


Community level: One key element in integrating climate risk management into development practice is reaching people at the level of communities. At a local level: planting practices can change from season to season to adapt to climate variability. Such is a shift in crop mix such as moving from water-intensive corn cultivation to more traditional crops that require less water. Supplementary feeding schemes can assist when grazing is in short supply. A long-term recovery strategy and insurance against the impact of future droughts is changing the species in the herd exchanging cattle for camels and goats. Livestock banking has been proposed on the analogy of cereal banks, to assist producers to carry stock across the difficult seasons. Livestock banking proposes that the expense of restocking can be spared if, during parts of the year, animals can be traded in to an independently owned ‘bank’ in return for a token. Other alternatives might include simply turning the animals into cash and then rebuying when prices are low[8]. Another idea is that of urban agriculture to deal with the influx of people in urban areas, to increase food production and to ease the burden on rural agriculture. In addition it might ease the unemployment as people are self employed.


African traditional knowledge and local adaptation strategies are key entry and starting points for any purposive action. The development of appropriate adaptation measures has to be based on strategic information sharing that is culturally oriented and easily understandable by local communities. Resilient farming systems farmers are repository for traditional and indigenous knowledge, enterprise, skills, and practices related to crop and animal production.



  • In Humbane village in Gwanda, Zimbabwe, traditional method rainwater harvesting is used so that families can harvest enough food even when the rains are low.
  • Ethiopian farmers have adopted a range of adaptation measures in response to climate changes, including altering crop varieties, adopting soil and water conservation, and changing planting and harvesting periods, in response to changes in rain. In the Nile River Basin (Ethiopia), for instance, farmers grow 48 different crops and those who took adaptation methods produce more per hectare than those who did not.
  • Conflict resolution and community services—in DRC, local people relied on their own institutions, known as chambers dex paix or ‘peace councils’ and composed of elders, to deal with issues related to access to land that were fuelling the conflict.
  • The migration of pastoralists to areas of higher productivity alleviates stress on less productive or exhausted land. Restocking is usually thought of as something perpetrated by agencies, but pastoralists have their own systems of insurance against drought. Herders prepare for drought and epizootics by ‘lending’ their animals to relatives or friends in exchange for looking after some of their animals in return. Despite this, some interest groups argue that pastoralists are inherently inefficient and self-destructive, and should be settled, as is the official line in Nigeria, for example (Awogbade, 1981).

SOURCE: Climate Change and Security in Africa;  Vulnerability Discussion Paper: Valerie Ndaruzaniye, President, Global Water Institute Eckhard Volkmann, Desk Officer, Peacebuilding and Crisis Prevention, Federal Government

of Germany.PG15



Traditional adaptation strategies for coping with climate variability and extreme events are not well documented, neither is there an adequate sharing experience of which techniques work and which need to be adjusted for facing additional risks.





Information provided by environmental concern groups must be credible. This improves the effectiveness of early warning systems, allays hysteria and allows for the correct and appropriate measures to be taken. The dependence of most African economies on rain fed agriculture emphasizes the importance of drought early warning products for short- and long-term decision making in various sectors of the national economies. Accurate information is needed for identifying and prioritizing appropriate responses, and evaluating the impact of the interventions. The need for monitoring, mapping, and analysis of all disaster incidents, is linked to risk factors and vulnerability profiles. Assessments of the impacts on specific sectors that are important for livelihood security, e.g., agriculture and rural livelihoods and the effects on specific social and economic groups needs to be documented. African culture has much historical data passed on through oral tradition this needs to be placed in archives and could assist in identifying trends that would enable forecasting.



Approximately 90% of African households use biomass fuels (e.g. wood and vegetation) for cooking and water heating. A combination of unsustainable harvesting of forests and climate change (including unpredictable rainfall levels, drought, and flooding) threatens this high rate of biomass users with decreased forest cover rates, increased soil degradation, and supply disruption[9]. Reforestation projects are crucial to counteract the impact these activities are having. An expansion of electrical grids especially to rural areas will decrease dependence on biomass fuel. Electrical grids are only a solution to this problem if they are powered by clean fuel sources and to wean populations off complete dependence on biomass fuels. Most countries in Africa receive enough hours of sunlight to make a switch to solar energy a viable one. The one hindrance here is the high cost of implementation.


Africa has a largely unexploited hydropower potential. Utilising this would increase supply to match increased demand and would do so with reduced green house gas emissions. Less than 4% of Africa’s hydropower potential is currently utilized.  Governments could encourage the development of small-scale, hydro-schemes powered by private firms. Privatization could reduce financial burden on the government and encourage wide range of stakeholders. Also Run-of-the river hydropower projects avoid some of the drawbacks of larger dams and thus may be preferable where this option is available. However, care must be taken to consider the implications of large hydro projects on water resources and river basin management[10].




As can be seen from the different levels above reducing environmental vulnerability requires multi-level stakeholder coordination and communication. There are many advantages to involving the private sector no least is the much needed additional funding that the private sector would provide. Dialogue, raising awareness, fostering cooperation and participation in decision-making processes within and between countries is also essential.


The task before African governments is not an easy nor is there a single solution. Resolving the problem will require enormous financial commitment possibly more than is currently available to African governments, dedication to continuous development of cleaner sources of fuel with particular regard for poverty alleviation. The simultaneous managing of environmental vulnerability together with poverty reduction is necessary as one problem tends to feed the other while diminution of one diminishes the other. Government mechanisms at regional national and community level are required to enable the synchronized task of reducing Africa’s vulnerability to environmental disasters. In addition aid from non-governmental organisations as well as other donor parties is crucial as existing problems mean that African governments enter this arena with a handicap.  The situation though ominous is not without hope much has been done to enable African people to cope with environmental tragedies. Existing strategies are a step in the right direction, with many more steps required.




[1] This paper is a policy paper for decision makers throughout the African continent and outside of it. This paper includes recommendations for ways of action to be taken in order to effectively deal with the environmental vulnerabilities in Africa in general and in the SADC in particular which were discussed in Gwynne’s previous two articles.  

[2] Gwynne is a new research fellow in Green Compass Research. Gwynne can be reached at – gwynne04@gmailcom

[3] See The day after tomorrow. And To be or not to be. Environment and Humanitarian Disasters in Africa.Green Compass Research


[5] UNITED NATIONS ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COUNCIL ECONOMIC COMMISSION FOR AFRICA Fifth Meeting of the Africa Committee on Sustainable Development (ACSD-5) Regional Implementation Meeting (RIM) for CSD-16 Addis  Ababa 22-25 October 2007 Africa Review Report on DROUGHT AND DESERTIFICATION. pg 22

[6] No.4 above .pg26

[7] Climate Change and Security in Africa;  Vulnerability Discussion Paper: Leslie Lipper, Senior Environmental Economist, UN FAO Mulat Demeke, Economist, UN FAO Jeronim Capaldo, Economist, UN FAO.

[8] Working Paper 117 DROUGHT AND LIVESTOCK IN SEMI-ARID AFRICA AND SOUTHWEST ASIA Roger Blench Zoë Marriage March 1999 Overseas Development 20-25


[9] Climate Change and Security in Africa;  Vulnerability Discussion Paper: Daniel Fiott, Research Fellow, Madariaga—College of Europe Foundation Patrice Yamba T. Kantu, Project Coordinator, Institute for Environmental Security Florian Peter Iwinjak, UNIDO. Pg 23

[10] Climate change and Africa: Africa Partnership Forum 8th Meeting of the Africa Partnership Forum Berlin, Germany 22-23 May 2007.pg11


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To Be or Not to Be? – by Gwynne

September 7, 2011

Drought is one of the serious challenges and threats facing sustainable development in Africa. A drought can be defined as a naturally occurring phenomenon of prolonged and severe water deficit. Deficiency caused by drought results in a water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. The underlying cause of most droughts can be related to changing weather patterns manifested through the excessive build up of heat on the earth’s surface, reduction of rainfall, and reduced cloud cover and, increased evaporation rates. Climate change is set to exacerbate occurrence of climate related disasters including drought. 


 Drought has its greatest impact on water supplies. Lack of water affects every aspect of environmental health and human activity, including agriculture, natural areas and development projects. These problems have far reaching adverse impacts on human health, food security, economic activity, physical infrastructure, natural resources and the environment, and national and global security[1]. Africa has witnessed a high frequency of occurrence and severity of drought.


 The most severe consequence of drought is famine. Famine is a symptom of other problems and not a pre existing condition. The severity of a drought is determined by the area’s ability to cope. Thus a rainfall deficit in a sparsely populated region could go unnoticed; but a similar deficit in a heavily populated zone can become a famine if the population is ill-prepared to manage it. This highlights the fact that extreme environmental events though unpreventable can be mitigated.  While there is little that can be done to increase the amount of rainfall or other natural factors controlling the amount of water available it is important to know that droughts are not death sentences for all affected. Vulnerability to weather is a function of preparedness as well as of the event in itself. In essence famine is a man made problem which is avoidable. Mitigation and adaptation is necessary to stave off disasters[2].


 This discussion is relevant because of the extreme drought which is affecting over 12 million people across the Horn of Africa, but the escalation into famine in southern Somalia is blamed on decades of conflict, and a two-year aid restriction by the Islamist Shebab insurgents. Many Somali people have died already with more at risk. The conflict in Somalia has prevented adequate food production, construction of water reservoirs which would mitigate the situation. As noted earlier, the drought occurs naturally but the famine is man made or rather a reflection of a humanities vulnerability to extreme climatic factors. Somalia’s vulnerability is increased not only by the geographic location which makes it susceptible to droughts but the conflict which prohibits any constructive measures to be taken to prevent a famine. There are examples to show that droughts are not necessarily forerunners for famine.


Droughts are often associated with Africa and or developing countries, it is not that developed countries do not have droughts; it is that they are in a better position to cope. Much reference is made to the 1991–92 droughts, which ravaged more than 80% of southern Africa. This example is perhaps more relevant as it from developing countries. Fortunately there was no famine; this was because there was famine preparedness and prompt response on the part of governments in the region to warning signs of famine. The table below shows a number of factors which mitigated the situation.


The presence of food stores is important because, relief assistance does not arrive immediately. In 1992, most of the relief food imports arrived in Southern Africa six or more months after orders were placed. Another important note is in 1993 rainfall returned a normal average allowing food production to return to normal. This negated the prolonged dependence on food aid and or spent supplies.


  • Food imports and food aid, initiation or expansion of public works, and loans to agriculturists all addressed issues of supply and demand – rather than simply relief – early in the crisis (Field 1995).
  • Good rail, road, and communications infrastructure within the SADC facilitated delivery of food from the distribution centres.
  • Advance procuring of grain through market channels not only helped to provide food before aid arrived but also helped to avoid the precipitous price drops often associated with sudden arrival of vast quantities of food into drought-stricken regions.
  • Food also reached needy populations before they found it necessary to leave their homes.
  • In addition, most food-distribution programmes were implemented through market channels, and rural works projects prevented collapse of rural markets during the crisis.
  • Maize subsidies were lifted in Zimbabwe and Zambia during the relief effort, to increase producer incentives at a time when large supplies of foreign maize would otherwise have driven prices down (Callihan et al. 1994).
Source: United Nations University website: The relationship between drought and famine.


African countries have many pre existing problems that prevent an adequate response to environmental crises; poverty, weak institutional capacities, and challenges in resource mobilization, weak information base, and inadequate access to affordable appropriate technology. In war torn countries such as Somalia all these are moot points until a cessation of the conflict allows for development of institutions that would enable the positioning of coping mechanisms. It has been shown that even with a handicap African countries can have drought monitoring, early warning and drought risk management that can be utilized to avoid catastrophes. Drought policy has to be based on a long-term understanding of both climatic patterns and the changes in human settlement that have made the impact of drought so much more serious in recent times. The dependence of most African economies on rain fed agriculture emphasizes the importance of drought early warning products for short- and long-term decision making in various sectors of the national economies. This is because whether a famine is to be or not to be is dependant on human factors.


[1] Summary of the fifth international conference on community based adaptation 28-31 March 2011

[2] See The day after tomorrow.  Environment and Humanitarian Disasters in Africa.Green Compass Research


August 31, 2011

The Day After Tommorow


by GWYNNE[2]

Given the fast deterioration of environments around the world environmental education needs to focus on ensuring that people understand that the destruction of the environment is not tomorrow’s problem but one which we will in our lifetimes have to deal with. Environmental degradation must be seen not only as an environmental concern but as a growing threat to sustainable development and poverty reduction. The effects on the environment cannot so much be reversed but mitigated. The harsh truth is that even if global carbon emissions, water/ soil/ air pollution and deforestation stopped tomorrow the world would still be faced with the massive challenge of adapting to changes in the environment caused by these factors.

There is urgent need for realistic adaptation options to reduce the vulnerability of the environment, strengthen income generation techniques and national economies, as well as produce coping mechanisms to deal with current, environmental disasters and future changes in rainfall patterns, reduction in food and water security; decreasing natural resources due to over use, shifting vector-borne diseases; rising sea levels affecting low-lying coastal areas with large populations. Adapting to present and future environmental changes would require developing systems capable of absorbing the current shocks and at the same time integrate future change risks.

One of the main concerns; climate change, is not something that will occur at an appointed date. Climate change has begun and already the effects are being felt. The consequences of other environmental concerns, pollution, deforestation resulting in desertification, ozone depletion are also already taking their toll. In as much as global carbon emissions, water/ soil/ air pollution and deforestation are driven by global economy and world politics they will conversely also have a negative effect on economies and social development. Although Africa is least responsible for climate change, it is particularly susceptible to the effects, including: reduced agricultural production, worsening food security, the increased incidence of both flooding and drought, spreading disease and an increased risk of conflict over scarce land and water resources. Africa is vulnerable due its overdependence on rain-fed agriculture, compounded by factors such as widespread poverty and weak capacity. This has significantly reduced the competence of poor households in Africa to cope with shocks of extreme environmental events.

A relevant example is, Somalia which is currently experiencing almost all types of environmental concerns, both natural and man-made. While there is little that can be done to prevent such things as drought, the famine element is avoidable. A case in point is that of the drought in Southern Africa 1991/1992 where drought and other natural disasters did not end in famine, this is pertinent because this is an example from developing countries that have succeeded in avoiding famine during lengthy drought. The drought placed millions of people at risk of starvation. A mix of politics, drought, preparedness, and means of adaptation is the cause for the famine in Somalia, whereas in Southern Africa these factors where controlled in order to avoid a famine.

One of the main concerns with the dilapidation of the environment is that if at all it is, it is not easily reversible. Mitigation and adaptation is the only way forward. Adaptation to environmental change should be understood as a continuous process which addresses current problems and extremes and future risks. Thus, for African governments in particular, managing environmental risk must rapidly shift from a purely environmental concern to addressing a growing threat to development. The evidence from past experience suggests that this is best achieved through integrating environmental issues into government policies and protecting the most vulnerable. Environmental education needs to focus on ensuring that people understand that the destruction of the environment is not tomorrow’s problem but one which we will in our lifetimes have to deal with. Today and tomorrow maybe all right but what about the day after?


[1] This article opens a series of articles on “Environment and Humanitarian Disasters in Africa”.

[2] Gwynne is a new research fellow in Green Compass Research. Ms. Mhalanga can be reached at – gwynne04@gmailcom