Monday, July 18, 2011

East African drought: two articles

Two good articles on the changing envirionment (and changing climate)
as it relates to the drought.

July 11, 2011
Drought Just One Example of Africa�s Changing Environment
Joe DeCapua

A woman holds her malnourished child on arrival at Banadir hospital in
Mogadishu, Somalia, July 7, 2011
As a prolonged, severe drought puts 10 million people at risk in East
Africa, humanitarian agencies are hard-pressed to supply enough food
and water. Crops have been destroyed, farmland damaged, seeds consumed
as food and livestock sold so families can survive. Thousands of
people have migrated to neighboring countries hoping to find relief.
They often just find more of the same.

The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) has issued warnings for years on
the affects of potential climate change, deforestation and the loss of
grasslands and wetlands.

�This is not a new phenomenon. I mean we seem to be seeing the
increasing frequency over recent years these kinds of events,� said
Nick Nuttall, chief spokesman for UNEP, which is based Nairobi.

While droughts are not definitive proof of climate change, Nuttall
said, �It certainly is part of environmental change, which is
happening in the Horn of Africa, but also happening across Africa in
terms of land quality�availability of fresh water, in terms of more
frequent drought and floods.�
The term �climate change� is often used to refer to the effects of
human activity, whereas �environmental change� is used to indicate
natural ecological processes.

As emergency relief operations continue to feed the hungry and
malnourished, scientists are trying to determine what�s causing the

�The best scientists in the world have analyzed what has been going on
in recent decades and they�re using the best available scientific
models to try and work out what might happen in the future,� he said.

Going to extremes

�Africa is already a climate-extreme continent. You already have
extremes of rainfall and of drought naturally. The fact we�re actually
seeing changes in that pattern�more frequency in terms of droughts and
floods �begs the question, is it climate change?�

Temperatures have risen on the continent. Nuttall said, �Africa has
warmed by about 0.7 degrees centigrade during the 20th Century. And
some of the highest temperatures were certainly recorded during the
end of the 1990s. And you are seeing changes in rainfall. There�s been
a 25 percent decrease in rainfall over the Sahel region, for example,
during the past 30 years. In some of the tropical rainforest regions
of Africa, since about the mid-1970s you�ve seen rainfall falling by
something like 2.4 percent per decade,� he said.

While East Africa has been plagued by drought, other parts of the
continent are actually getting more rain. �If you�ve got more heat in
the atmosphere, you get more evaporation of water from the sea,� he

However, he added, �If you look at the situation in terms of the
devastation of croplands and pasturelands, about 65 percent of
Africa�s croplands are now degraded. About 30 percent of the
pasturelands are in the same condition, which is also adding to
problems with crop yields, problems with food security.�

He said it�s important to look at all the environmental changes now
occurring and consider what might happen if they continue for another
decade, �unless we can actually start delivering some kind of
sustainable development in this part of the world.�

Lessons from the past

In Africa�s past, the Sahara was green. Historians have said an early
Egyptian culture apparently collapsed as a result of drastic changes
in the environment and weather. But is it climate change or a natural
progression of environmental changes?

�Whether we�re seeing a natural progression or not, these were events
that happened in the past due to natural cycles. The difference in the
period of time we�re seeing right now is that the greenhouse gas
emissions that are being pumped out mainly by the industrial world,
but increasingly by the rapidly developing world, are actually forcing
natural trends into a different trajectory,� said the UNEP spokesman.

While it may be different from the past, Nuttall said, �The past gives
us clues as to how this thing might evolve.�


For many years, the UNEP has spoken out against deforestation and its
effects on the environment.

�One of the critical, critical issues in terms of actually adapting to
climate change and also indeed in terms of reducing emissions will be
how the world manages its forests,� he said.

Kenya, for example, is working to restore the Mau Complex, which
Nuttall calls the �largest closed canopy forest in Africa.�

�In the last couple of years, the government of Kenya, with support
from other governments, has now started reinvesting in the
rehabilitation of this forest system. And the question you have to ask
is why? This one forest is actually worth several billions of dollars
every year in terms of the services it provides,� he said.

That includes the water flow affecting more than a dozen major river
systems needed for drinking water, hydroelectric power, tourism and
the tea industry.

�So suddenly you�re seeing a whole dynamic in terms of a relationship
with the forest,� he said.

EASTERN AFRICA: Too soon to blame climate change for drought

Ali Abdi, 60, a pastoralist in Bisle, Shinile zone of Ethiopia's
Somali region, says it is the worst drought he has seen in his lifetime
ADDIS ABABA, 12 July 2011 (IRIN) - As parts of the Horn of Africa
experience their driest periods in 60 years, pushing the numbers
needing aid to beyond 10 million, some have been quick to blame
climate change.

But no single event can be attributed to climate change, which
involves long-term (decades or longer) trends in climate variability.
There is, however, consensus in attributing the drought to the
particularly strong La Ni�a event. The impact of climate change on the
intensity and frequency of La Ni�a and El Ni�o in future is a big

IRIN spoke to two experts, an environmentalist and a scientist, who
have worked extensively in the region:

Philip Thornton, a senior scientist who works part-time with the
Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and
the University of Edinburgh-based Institute of Atmospheric and
Environmental Sciences, has done some pioneering work on projections
of climate-change impact in eastern and southern Africa.

He told IRIN via email that projections of the climate-change impact
in East Africa were �a problem� as the authoritative Inter-
governmental Panel on Climate Change�s Fourth Assessment Report
�indicated that there was good consensus among the climate models that
rainfall was likely to increase during the current century.

"But work by other climate scientists since then suggests that ...
certain Indian Ocean effects in East Africa may not actually occur.

"Some people think that East Africa is drying, and has dried over
recent years; currently there is no hard, general evidence of this,
and it is very difficult as yet to see where the statistical trends of
rainfall in the region are heading, but these will of course become
apparent in time.� [see Unpacking La Ni�a]

The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report will be released in 2014.

Photo: ILRI
Rainfall in East Africa related to El Ni�o Southern Oscillation points
to severe La Ni�a phase
Jan de Leeuw is the operating project leader in the vulnerability and
sustainability in pastoral and agro-pastoral systems within ILRI�s
People, Livestock and Environment theme. He points out that this La
Ni�a event is one of the strongest since the 1970s. But he says La
Ni�a, along with El Ni�o, appear in cycles that �we don�t understand�.

What we do know is that La Ni�a started to develop in August 2010. It
cools surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, while
allowing warmer water to build in the eastern Pacific. �The pool of
warm water in the east intensifies rains in Australia, the
Philippines, and Indonesia. Domino-style, this pattern also increases
the intensity of westerly winds over the Indian Ocean, pulling
moisture away from East Africa toward Indonesia and Australia. The
result? Drought over most of East Africa and floods and lush
vegetation in Australia and other parts of Southeast Asia,� according
to the US government�s National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

De Leeuw writes: �La Ni�a events were common from 1950 till 1976.
Since then we had two decades [until about 1996] with fewer events of
lesser depth. This has changed since then and over the last 15 years
or so we have had more frequent La Ni�a events.�

Events as deep as the current La Ni�a occur once in 20 or 30 years,
writes De Leeuw. �We are in a period now of more frequent La Ni�a
events, but such a situation was there from 1950 till 1976 also.�

Thornton has the last word when he says research attention must focus
on developing effective early warning systems and ways to help people
affected by these events, who have no use for �academic� consideration
of the linkages with climate change to cope better with the current
levels of weather variability, �whatever happens in the future�.

Theme (s): Early Warning, Environment, Natural Disasters,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United

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