East Africa’s climate is expected to change drastically in the next three decades, disrupting the region’s fragile agriculture sector, threatening livelihoods and potentially shifting the prevalence of diseases like malaria and cholera.
New projections on climate change by a group of scientists from the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) under its programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security show that temperatures in East Africa are likely to increase by between 1.3 degrees and 2.1 degrees Celsius by 2050.
The study brought in researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asareca).
The researchers developed climate models, that reveal the region is headed for difficult times as far as food production and overall economic growth is concerned.
The software models, which show both the best and worst case scenarios, show that rainfall will be more variable, either increasing, declining or remaining the same in different parts of the region.
The researchers used climate models developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their report titled East Africa and Climate Change: A Comprehensive Analysis.
In a different projection, the World Meteorological Organisation in its latest assessment on climate change said that the earth experienced unprecedented climate extremes during the 2001-2010 decade, a situation that could worsen in the next 20 years.
In March, researchers at Oregon State University said global temperatures are warmer than at any time in at least 4,000 years, adding that the levels will rise further in the coming three decades.
According to researchers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the earth’s average surface temperature has risen 0.7 degrees Celsius since humans accelerated emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during the Industrial Revolution.
The extreme conditions are already manifesting themselves in the form of severe droughts, changing rainfall patterns and raging floods.
In 2002, severe flooding occurred in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, with some locations recording their wettest conditions since 1961.
In 2005, the drought hit the region and parts of Central Africa. In 2006, things changed yet again, with most parts of the continent recording wetter-than-normal conditions.
In 2010, dry conditions developed during the later months in parts of East Africa, particularly in equatorial regions of Kenya and Tanzania.
Agriculture economists now blame faltering food production on the changing climate patterns. The region is struggling to feed its 130 million population, and with the population expected to hit the 400 million mark by 2050, the five East African countries will continue have more mouths to feed every year.
“...Temperatures are rising everywhere. Night time temperatures are rising at a high rate but day time temperatures have not seen any significant changes. We have not yet determined particular patterns for rainfall distribution except for the increased frequency in extreme weather conditions,” said Magezi Akiiki, the assistant commissioner in charge of training and research at Uganda’s Department of Meteorology.
An analysis done by the Kenya Meteorological Department on average rainfall totals during the long rains, for the past 30 years, shows a decline in areas such as Kericho and Kakamega. “The trend in Kericho is more worrying since the decline is more evident compared with Kakamega and other stations,” says Peter Ambenje, the deputy director of meteorological services at the department.
“Warmer temperatures often result in an increase in crop diseases,” said Mr Magezi.
East Africa will be much drier overall in the future, says the CGIAR consortium, particularly during the long rains season that runs from March to June.
This should be a worry for governments since the long rains season is the backbone of the region’s rain-fed agriculture economy, which accounts more than 50 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan and Tanzania. In Eritrea, Kenya and Madagascar it accounts for almost 30 per cent.
A warmer climate could also result in the shrinking and even extinction of the coral reef off East Africa’s coast, said the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.
Corals, home to about one million species of marine life globally, are sensitive to high temperatures and easily disintegrate when the ocean gets too warm, the institute said.
Coral extinction spells disaster for the millions of East Africans who depend on the reef for food, building materials and income from tourism.
This is not the first time the region’s coral reefs are facing ruin: In 1998, the El-Nino rains caused a 1 degree rise in sea temperatures, and with it, the death of between 50 and 80 per cent of corals off the East African coast, according to the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute. Most corals have recovered well, says the research institute but any sustained increase in sea temperatures could permanently damage the reef.
The damage is likely to be greater than just the coral reef. Coastal cities such as Mombasa and Dar es Salaam could end up going the way of the fabled city of Atlantis — lost under the sea. Atlantis is the fabled ancient city mentioned in Plato’s writings that apparently sank into the sea.
Currently, 17 per cent of Mombasa County lies within 10 metres above sea level, including much of Mombasa’s central business district and famous monuments such as Fort Jesus, said a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Southampton.
Comparatively, eight per cent of Dar es Salaam lies within 10 metres of sea level, and like Mombasa, the city is particularly vulnerable to flooding due to the mushrooming of informal settlements; 65 per cent of Dar residents live in unplanned settlements, shows a 2011 study published by the United Nations Environment Programme.
The Unep study reported that at Kunduchi beach area in northern Dar es Salaam, for example, the coastline has retreated for about 200 metres over the past 50 years, destroying residential houses, a mosque, and sections of a number of hotels, as well as a historic fish market constructed in 1970s.
But with scientists from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, a leading climate research institute, predicting that the oceans will rise by 2.3 metres for every degree rise in global temperature, even a single degree increase could see the destruction of vast coastal areas around the world, a devastating prospect considering that up to half of the world’s population today lives in coastal areas.
A warmer climate could also mean a shift in the incidence of diseases such as malaria, which is more prevalent in the hot and humid areas of East Africa, such as around Lake Victoria.
Researchers under CGIAR warned that higher temperatures and higher rainfall may favour plant pests and disease multiplication, as well as increased transmission of human diseases, particularly malaria parasites. As a result, areas which have not had much of a disease burden such as the now-cooler highland areas of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania could be the new hotbeds for malaria.
Climate change is already proving to be a major headache for local policy makers because a drier East Africa means less food and malnourished population, and even worse, a decline in GDP given the critical role agriculture plays in the region’s economy.
Blow to farming
Farming in all the five East African countries is dominated by smallholders who rely on rainfall. In Kenya, for example, small scale farmers produce over 70 per cent of maize, 65 per cent of coffee, 50 per cent of tea, 65 per cent of sugar, and almost 100 per cent of other food crops.
The same applies to other East African countries, where farmers have remained the dominant players in agriculture production.
Even if farmers could shift to irrigation to reduce their dependence on rain, a warmer climate makes this difficult.
With a two degree rise in overall temperature, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, the Rwenzori Mountains and Virunga Mountains would lose most of their glacial caps, and after a brief surge in water levels for rivers that flow from these mountains as glaciers melt, the region’s rivers would run dry.
The recently-discovered and much-publicised Turkana aquifer, which has the potential to transform Kenya from the current water deficient status to one of the few water surplus nations in sub-Saharan Africa, is largely recharged by the Turkwel River, which flows from Mount Elgon on the Kenya-Uganda border. With a drier regional climate, the aquifer could run dry much faster than expected.
Crop modelling assessments of the potential effects of climate change, done by the scientists from the CGIAR consortium on the maize crop, suggest a general increase in yields in some parts of the region and a decline in others. Heavy yield losses are expected in most parts of DRC, Ethiopia, Tanzania and northern Uganda.
Additional reporting by Rosemary Mirondo and Dicta Asiimwe