As the United States picks up the pieces from Hurricane Sandy, one thing we should be asking ourselves if a similar weather event were to hit the coast of East Africa, would we be prepared for it? Given the severity and impact of recent extreme weather events, it is hard to deny the reality of global climate change.
Climate change needs to be a part of our political discourse; we can never be fully prepared for natural disasters but we can at least have structures in place to help East Africans recover from natural disasters.
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about climate change and global warming is the idea that the planet is “heating up.” In fact, the best explanation of climate change and the consequences of global warming is that we will have regular weather but on steroids. This means our rainy seasons will see a lot more rain, resulting in more floods such as the ones we saw in Dar es Salaam in 2011 and Rwanda last month. We will see longer periods of drought and our hot dry seasons will be hotter and dryer. The events and their impacts will be magnified. This is something we must understand and prepare for.
East Africa’s record in preparing for and responding to natural disasters has not been good. The Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA) is second only to Southeast Asia among the most disaster-prone regions in the world. Sadly, we have been better at reacting to natural disasters than at anticipating them. We should anticipate more natural disasters, especially on the East African coast.
The 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia should serve as a warning. While it was hard to imagine that the coastlines of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania could be affected by a seaquake whose epicentre was many thousands of kilometres away, some 80 people died when the effects of the tsunami reached our coast. Earlier this year, the coastal cities of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa panicked due to warnings of a potential tsunami hitting the coast. The traffic chaos in the streets of Dar es Salaam showed how utterly unprepared we are.
Acknowledging the reality of climate change and being prepared to deal with the extreme weather events that it will generate is vital for promoting human security in the region.
Security ought to be looked at through the dual prism of state (hard) security as well as human (soft) security. Focusing exclusively on hard security issues at the expense of soft security ignores the youthful human capital advantage enjoyed by East Africa. It is estimated that in less than three generations, 41per cent of the world’s youth will be African. But how can the region exploit this clear demographic advantage when many of the youth are uneducated, illiterate and malnourished?
The current tensions in Zanzibar demonstrate the consequences of ignoring soft security. When human and economic development has been stagnant for as long as it has been in Unguja and Pemba, young people are often left choosing between narcotic fatalism and violent extremism.
How the region handles these two critical issues at the end of the day is up to how the leadership of the region prioritises them. In September 2012, Mo Ibrahim told the Wall Street Journal, “Africa doesn’t need help, doesn’t need aid. It’s a very rich continent. There is no justification for us to be poor. The heart of the problem is governance, the way Africans govern themselves. Without good governance, there’s no way forward.” What Mr Ibrahim is referring to is what I like to call the X-Factor that will determine whether the challenges of security and ecology derail the regional integration process or not.
If the region’s leaders do not take the environment and ecology seriously, we will be caught flatfooted when disaster hits and overwhelmed when our human security is shattered. The episodic bouts of political violence in Kenya, mounting politico-religious tensions in Tanzania, the delicately balanced peace in Burundi and the forthcoming round of high-stakes elections and leadership transitions in all five East African Community countries mark a critical moment for the region.
East Africa’s elite could take comfort in the high, positive economic growth rates, expanding intra-regional and global trade, and the rising global profile of the region. However, the hitherto relatively smooth ride towards greater regional integration can be derailed if we take our ecological and human security for granted.
Ahmed Salim works with the Society for International Development, organisers of the first East Africa Future Day