Demanding Climate Justice

Africa speaks up on Climate Change

January 10, 2008

by Bettina Schneider

Interview with Negusu Aklilu, co-ordinator of the Ethiopian Forum for Environment, editor-in-chief of “AKIRMA: a Magazine on Environment and Development“, and one of the primary signatories of the appeal Africa Speaks up on Climate Change.

You are one of the first signatories of the appeal “Africa Speaks up on Climate Change“. Why do you support this appeal?

Negusu Aklilu: I am personally an environmental activist working for a local NGO in Ethiopia and,  for a long time now, we have realised that climate change is having a big impact on Africa. The bottom line is – Africa is not really the culprit. Africa is not responsible for what is happening, but it is being hit quite substantially in many areas. It is all about climate justice. When it comes to this issue of justice, I think, as an activist, it is a moral duty for me to join this initiative. So I automatically accepted the offer to be one of the first signatories.

In what ways is the African continent hit by climate change and its effects?

Negusu Aklilu: Climate change is really impacting on Africa quite heavily. One affected sector is agriculture. In Africa, the majority of people are living on rain-fed agriculture. So due to climate change and global warming, rainfall patterns have changed in the past few decades, and rainfall has become unpredictable and erratic. Farmers used to have their own traditional knowledge about rainfall and about the climate surrounding them. But now, things happen which are beyond the traditional knowledge of the farmers, so that they can no more predict rainfall patterns. For this reason productivity has been seriously affected and food insecurity is looming in many parts of Africa. Another sector is the pastoralist sector. In Africa, we have a substantial number of people who are leading a pastoralist way of life. Climate change affects them a lot because water is getting very scarce, water wells are drying up, rivers are now dwindling in size, and even streams that used to be numerous in the past are now decreasing in number. This makes it hard to survive for pastoralists. For this reason conflicts over resources such as water have been aggravating in many parts of Africa. Public health is another sector heavily affected by climate change. Personally, I was born and grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, which is about 2500 m above sea level. In the past this altitude has prevented the breeding of mosquitoes responsible for malaria. But now, many highlands are becoming highland deserts due to climate change and the warming taking place. Therefore, places like Addis Ababa are now experiencing malaria. What does malaria mean to Africa? Malaria is not just about public health, it is also about the African economy. It has been claiming lots of lives and a lot of money. For this reason many African people have remained poor. The expansion of malaria could be quite dangerous in this regard as well. Another very important element for conservation is Africa’s biodiversity which is threatened by climate change. This is a very tough time for Africa because it has been trying to get out of the shackles of many challenges – challenges which are now being re-enforced by climate change. This poses an economic, social, and political challenge for Africa now and in the time to come.

How aware is the general public in Africa at present of the human influence on the climate and therefore on climate change?

Negusu Aklilu: This is probably one of the areas we have to focus on as African actors. Because climate change is not a well understood and well perceived concept yet. Therefore there is, on the one hand, a low level of public awareness, and on the other hand, existing information and knowledge on climate change is localised in academic and research institutions. We have two important things to do: First, we have to raise public awareness on the issue, and second, we should create a mechanism whereby information and knowledge can be exchanged among stakeholders. By doing that, we can create better information and better awareness in Africa.

What can and what should be done in order to help African countries adapt to the effects of the climate change?

Negusu Aklilu: Adaptation in Africa is about many things, for instance policies. African governments should put in place enabling policy instruments to better adapt to climate change. Another issue is the awareness that I mentioned. People have to know what is happening and they have to prepare themselves for what is going to come. This is also about setting priorities. So far, for a number of reasons, climate change is not a top priority for African governments. This could be due to the lack of awareness or the poor perception that we have of it. But climate change is going to be a big challenge for good governance in Africa. African governments should really take it seriously. In fact, I would go so far as to recommend that because of climate change a state of emergency should be declared. This, for African people and Africa in gerneral, would make a looming crisis an actuality.

What else should be done by African governments, and by African civil society?

Negusu Aklilu: African governments and African civil society have to join hands and should define their roles and responsibilities. Civil society should – just like we have done now – further promote the African climate appeal. But in order for it to be successful, African governments should really join hands with us. By defining different roles and responsibilities we can create a kind of environment in which the African people would have a better adaptive capacity and a better resilience capacity from the impacts.

What exactly do you demand of the industrialised countries?

Negusu Aklilu: It is good that I started with ourselves. Some people think that we are only pointing our fingers at the industrialised world. That is not the case. In fact, as Africans, we also should feel responsible for properly managing our resources,  and for instance, having an effective population policy. That should be implemented in order to relieve the pressure on the few remaining natural resources like forests, the soil, and water bodies. The huge pressure we exerted on our natural resources in the past has really eroded our capacity to adapt to climate change now. On the other hand, whatever is happening in Africa due to climate change can almost totally be attributed to what is happening in Europe and the industrialised world. So this is an issue of moral responsibility and fairness. The industrialised world has to take it personally. Would a person with a very bad neighbour tolerate whatever is happening in his neighbourhood or in his house just because of the irresponsible practices of his neighbour? No! Neighbours have to live in such a way that the actions of one do not negatively affect the other. This is what we are saying regarding climate change: We are neighbours. Africa is a neighbour of Europe and the US. We have tolerated lots of crises and negative impacts which have come in different forms. Now it is time to say “no” to the bad neighbour! The industrialised world has to feel the responsibility and to take action, so that greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced to the levels they had before the 1990s. If that happens, as the experts say, the impacts of climate change would be minimised. This is one thing. The second thing is, business as usual is now continuing and  the greenhouse gases already emitted will affect the whole world for many decades to come. So, the industrialised world should accept responsibility for what it has done in the past and for what it is doing right now which has negatively impacted on Africa and take concrete actions in terms of lifestyles, practices, and policies. Now Africa is suffering, so do something about it!

Are there any concrete measures of adaptation that should be supported?

Negusu Aklilu: This depends on the different sectors. One major element is putting in place effective early warning systems in Africa. For instance, floods are now becoming quite commonplace in Africa. In 2006 they affected some countries in Eastern Africa like Ethiopia, now they affect Mozambique, Uganda, and some other countries. With an efficient early warning system this could not have happened. Then there are also different technologies. We have got some local technologies in the form of traditional ecological knowledge which could be harnessed to confront climate change. Modern technological means from Europe and the industrialised world could help Africa better to adapt to climate change. But in general, this question is quite tricky because we are talking about different kinds of sectors, and these require very specific adaptation plans. Each country in Africa is now being urged to come up with a national adaptation plan of action, plans that hopefully will be prepared through a consultative process with the participation of many different actors. After that everything depends on implementing these national adaptation plans.

Is there any other point that you would like to make?

Negusu Aklilu: I mentioned in the documentary film (“Hotspot Africa. Africa Speaks up on Climate Change”) the American Nobel laureate Wiesel who said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” You cannot say “I love you” to somebody else, simply because you are not hating him. Not hating is not enough. We have to go one step further – we have to make sure that we are not indifferent to that person and to what is happening to him or her. We have to be down to earth to express our love, that is to say, our good neighbourhood. So I urge the industrialised world to stop indifference, and do something about Africa right now. To Africa, climate change is on the agenda of now and today, not tomorrow.

Interview by Bettina Schneider, November 27, 2007, Berlin