Adaptation can make Africa safer, greener and more prosperous in a warming world.
Urgent Need to Adapt to Climate Change
The average global temperature is on track to rise to 1.5 C above preindustrial levels within the next decade or so and 2 C or more by midcentury. These warmer temperatures are already transforming the planet, causing more extreme storms and floods, rising sea levels, more intense heatwaves, and longer and more severe droughts. As global temperatures continue to climb, those impacts will inevitably intensify.
Africa is particularly vulnerable to these extreme impacts of climate change. It faces exponential collateral damage, posing systemic risks to its economies, infrastructure investments, water and food systems, public health, agriculture and livelihoods, threatening to undo its hard-fought development and reverse decades of economic progress. Rates of poverty are high, both among the millions of smallholder farmers and the large numbers of people who live in informal settlements with limited access to basic services in cities. In addition, large portions of Africa — in particular, the drylands areas that cover three-fifths of the continent — are warming at a rate twice the global average, putting half a billion people at risk.
Projections estimate that climate change will cause a 2 percent to 4 percent annual loss in GDP in the region by 2040. The brunt of the impact will be borne by the poor, women and currently marginalized or excluded populations. Even if international mitigation efforts keep global warming below 2 C, the continent is expected to face climate change adaptation costs of $50 billion per year by 2050. Meanwhile, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic has been a severe disruption, straining resources in many countries.
Africa thus has no choice but to adapt now to the present and future impacts of climate change. At the same time, rapid and decisive action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change is crucial for reducing those future impacts; without at least some mitigation, adapting to climate change may be impossible for Africa.
The Global Center on Adaptation's State and Trends in Adaptation 2021 report presents the most comprehensive overview of the present and future prospects for the African continent in the light of climate change. It offers a blueprint for how individuals and institutions in the African and international policy space can finance, design, and implement adaptation plans to best protect the lives and livelihoods of millions of African people from such disruptive change.
The macroeconomics of adaptation: the potential for large benefits
The analyses in this report document the high costs of climate change impacts in Africa. Because of better hazard reduction measures, improved social safety nets, humanitarian support and other measures, African nations have significantly reduced the number of deaths from floods, droughts and other weather events. But the economic toll, which includes reduced crop yields, business losses from disruptions to supply chains and power outages, damage to housing stock and infrastructure, people displaced from their homes and farms and livelihoods harmed, is enormous — billions of dollars a year. If Africa had not experienced numerous damaging weather events over the last decade, the strong growth rates countries have achieved would have been even higher.
Adaptation measures are essential to decreasing those large economic damages and further decreasing the loss of life. Yet adaptation can accomplish much more than simply preventing future damages; it also presents major opportunities to achieve a larger development agenda and put Africa on a new “green” and resilient pathway to growth. Adaptation and development work hand in hand, creating powerful synergies that can increase the chances of meeting global sustainable development goals and additional goals that African nations have set for improving agricultural productivity. Moreover, Africa has some special advantages that make the green growth path more achievable, such as a rapidly increasing labor force and vast available resources.
Adaptation measures have the potential to create a virtuous circle. Even as they protect people and communities from the impacts of climate change, they can also help lift people out of poverty, reduce hunger and undernourishment, raise incomes and living standards, fight diseases such as cholera and dysentery, create jobs, reduce inequities, reduce the tensions that lead to conflicts, and empower women. Those gains, in turn, will further increase resilience, enabling communities to better cope with future extreme storms, droughts, or other climate change impacts. In addition, many of these actions will help mitigate climate change as well by cutting emissions or pulling carbon from the atmosphere.
The macroeconomic analysis in this report shows that the economic case for adaptation is strong. Adapting now is much more cost-effective than continuing to finance increasingly frequent and severe crisis responses, disaster relief measures and recovery efforts. Studies focusing on Africa show that the benefits of adaptation measures are almost always more than twice the costs, and often are more than five times higher. In addition, moving quickly to adapt is especially beneficial, with a benefit-cost ratio for early action of at least 12 to 1.
A comprehensive plan of action
This report uses in-depth analyses, case studies, and viewpoints from those on the frontlines of climate change impacts in Africa to present a detailed blueprint for action, offering innovative adaptation and resilience ideas, solutions, and policy recommendations. It calls for a combination of coordinated and supportive bottom-up and top-down solutions. Adaptation is everybody’s business.
The report documents and builds upon numerous examples that already exist today in Africa of successful adaptation strategies. An initiative called the Great Green Wall has evolved from the idea of a 7,000 km belt of trees planted across the width of Africa to a comprehensive vision for restoring 100 million hectares of degraded land, demonstrating that African nations can work together to set ambitious targets and make progress. In addition, several countries have released national green growth strategies that include a strong focus on adaptation, such as Ethiopia’s Climate‐Resilient Green Economy Strategy, Rwanda’s Green Growth and Climate Resilience National Strategy for Climate Change and Low Carbon Development, and South Africa’s Green Economy Accord. Equally important, these countries have ensured that consideration of adaptation is part of their planning processes and budget allocations.
Other nations are implementing specific adaptation measures, such as the modernized climate information and early warning system in Malawi. That system delivers improved forecasts and weather advisories to farmers, fishers and disaster response organizations over mobile phones and other platforms, helping people prepare for coming weather events. One study showed that by 2019, the system had directly improved the resilience of 420,000 people and indirectly helped 1.2 million more people.
Many other efforts are growing up from the grassroots, such as farmer-led agroforestry restoration efforts that have increased crop yields in Niger and community-led efforts in urban informal settlements to build stormwater drains and improve access to clean water and electricity, increasing resilience to floods.
These examples, and many more, have laid a strong foundation for a more resilient Africa. But given the size of the climate threat, the pace of adaptation must be dramatically increased. As the report’s chapters describe in detail, adaptation must be “mainstreamed” into decision-making at all levels of government, in all economic thinking and planning, and in every ministry, with high level adaptation champions in each country. Adaptation measures also must be implemented in every sector — agriculture, transportation, energy, trade, water resources and urban development. Particularly important are nature-based solutions, such as restoring mangroves to protect coastal communities or creating urban parks that absorb stormwater and moderate heat waves in cities.
To support these efforts, adaptation finance must be accelerated using a wider variety of finance sources, from commercial banks and venture capital to insurance and foundations, and innovative ideas such as debt for climate swaps.
Given the African continent’s enormous human and natural resources, Africa has the potential to move forward rapidly in labor-intensive modern industries such as ecotourism services, climate-smart agriculture, renewable energy and green building and infrastructure. It thus has an opportunity to adapt to the impacts of climate change while simultaneously reaching sustainable development goals. This report is both a call to action and a comprehensive guide to the climate-adapted and resilient growth path that can move Africa toward a more resilient, healthier and more prosperous future.
The Challenge: Present and Future Impacts of Climate Change
Africa’s climate and weather are largely controlled by the El Niño Southern Oscillation, a weather system driven by changes in atmospheric and ocean circulation across the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and by two monsoons. The West African monsoon brings rain to the western Sahel from June to September, and the East African monsoon drops precipitation in East and Central Africa from March to May and October to December. In addition, Africa’s East Coast is regularly struck by strong cyclones
Variations in these large-scale climate phenomena have huge implications for the amounts and patterns of rainfall and storms in individual African countries, and have historically caused numerous natural disasters such as floods and droughts
A major challenge in the planning for climate change is the deep uncertainty at small geographical scales (such as a city) and over longer timeframes (the decades of useful life of infrastructure assets). This calls for a strong emphasis on no-regret robust solutions able to handle that uncertainty.
Now, however, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of those extreme weather events. The number of floods in Africa has jumped five-fold since the 1990s, and many floods are more extreme. Sudan experienced its most severe flood in 60 years in 2020, for example, with more than 500,000 people displaced and 5.5 million areas of farmland destroyed.
In 2019, two of the strongest storms ever recorded hit East Africa. Cyclone Idai destroyed 90 percent of the homes in the city of Beira in Mozambique and damaged 1.4 million hectares of arable land in Zimbabwe. A few weeks later, Cyclone Kenneth struck a little to the north. Together, the storms killed 1300 people and affected 3.5 million more.
Droughts are becoming more intense as well. A 2016-17 drought in Somalia caused US $1.5 billion in losses to agriculture, along with widespread malnutrition, and a 2019 drought lowered water levels behind the Kariba Dam, leading to US $200 million in lost production in Zimbabwe from power shortages.
In addition, the intensification of the Asian monsoon lows, which draw warm dry air from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa, caused temperatures to rise up to 47 C in Egypt in August 2021, making it unsafe to work outdoors and forcing the Metro in Cairo to close. Such dangerous heat waves are becoming more frequent.
The increase in extreme climate events is having serious consequences. Productivity growth for the continent’s number one staple, maize, has stalled, and the likelihood of conflict has increased. Data for the period 1980-2016 show that one-third of conflicts have been preceded by a natural disaster within seven days. After the 2009 drought in Mali, for example, Al Qaeda militants based in southern Algeria recruited fighters and extended their operations into Mali.
Studies show that each 1 C rise in temperature increases the risk of intergroup conflict by more than 10 percent. That can start a vicious cycle, where higher levels of conflict triggered by climate change further undermine communities’ abilities to cope with and adapt to more extreme weather events, making additional conflicts more likely.
These growing climate threats come at a time when Africa already faces significant economic and social challenges. More than one in five people across the continent experience hunger in their daily lives, and 282 million people are undernourished. The numbers of stunted children are rising, exacerbating cycles of poverty that can continue from generation to generation. And 94 percent of the world’s cases of malaria — 215 million in 2019 — occur in Africa, with 386,000 deaths in 2019.
Climate change impacts will become more severe
There are large uncertainties about Africa’s climate future. Whether certain regions will experience greater rainfall or suffer from more drought is highly dependent on small changes in the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the monsoons, which today’s climate models cannot yet accurately predict.
But many of the general trends are clear. By midcentury, average temperatures will be 2 C higher, or more, compared to preindustrial levels. Life-threatening temperatures above 41 C are projected to increase by 50 to 200 additional days, depending on the region and the world’s pace of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. For countries like Chad, Burkina Faso and Togo, more than 7 percent of all working hours will be lost because of heat stress.
The climate models do project that parts of North Africa, western Southern Africa, and Central Africa will continue to experience a drying trend — and that almost all regions of the continent will be struck by more frequent and more intense rainstorms, causing greater numbers of potentially devastating floods. At the same time, higher temperatures, enhanced evaporation and more erratic monsoons are expected to increase the number and severity of droughts.
Meanwhile, sea levels are virtually certain to climb by half a meter by the end of the century and could rise nearly a meter unless greenhouse emissions are quickly curbed, while cyclones are expected to become more powerful. The combination of higher seas and stronger storms will mean that today’s 1-in-100-year coastal flooding events will happen once every 10 to 20 years by midcentury, threatening millions of people in coastal communities.
Failure to curb global greenhouse gas emissions would put the world on a trajectory toward planetary warming of 3 C, which would cause catastrophic disruptions of the whole African food system. Under the 3 C scenario, Africa would lose 30 percent of its current growing areas for maize and banana, and 60 percent for beans, by 2050.
Climate tipping points are also possible. If the ocean currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation collapse, for example, deserts would spread across large areas of Africa south of the Sahara, with calamitous impacts on food production and agricultural livelihoods.
The Path Forward
Climate change presents a huge threat to Africa’s economic development and social progress. Adaptation is thus a necessity, not a choice. But it can put Africa on the path to a more resilient and prosperous future. This report lays out a detailed blueprint for successful adaptation. The key enabling foundations include:
Dramatically increasing financial support for adaptation.
Harnessing the power of the private sector.
Improving hydrological and meteorological services.
Creating more opportunities for young people.
These steps, if implemented, would lay the crucial groundwork for successful adaptation. It is then essential to build on those foundations by targeting adaptation efforts in key sectors. This report examines six sectors that are important for Africa’s future, offering in-depth analyses and recommendations for effective action: agriculture, trade, drylands, urban development, transport and energy and water resources, and floods and disaster risk management.
Conclusion: Turning the Blueprint into Action
A consistent theme runs through the sections of this report: Adaptation is not just a vital imperative; it also represents a major opportunity to solve previously intractable problems and put Africa on a more resilient path.
The same adaptation measures that can prevent devastating floods will reduce outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, now the leading cause of death in Africa in children under five. Re-greening the drylands and boosting crop yields will help stamp out malnutrition and child stunting, beginning a positive cycle that can improve families’ prospects and well-being over generations.
Or consider the challenges of gender equity. Women in Africa now have less access to productive land than men do. They get only 7 percent of all agriculture extension services and less than 10 percent of the credit offered to smallholder farmers. They are less likely to have mobile phones to connect themselves to markets or warn of threatening weather events, and they tend to shoulder laborious tasks such as fetching water and collecting fuelwood.
Adaptation done right not only corrects these inequalities, it also offers benefits from tapping into the often unique and invaluable knowledge and expertise of women in such areas as traditional crops, agricultural practices and edible wild plants. This report thus strongly recommends giving women greater roles in politics and decision-making.
Adaptation is not easy. The pursuit of other important objectives, such as the 169 targets in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, can even result in actions that are maladaptive. For example, efforts to reduce hunger by increasing irrigation could end up depleting aquifers, with severe long-term consequences. It is encouraging, therefore, that this particular risk was recognized in the Sebou-Saïss basin in northern Morocco, and the Saïss Water Conservation Project was launched to both cut hunger through more efficient irrigation and boost long-term resilience by preserving the aquifer.
Successful adaptation will take countless efforts like this one — and a resolve and commitment that most countries have yet to fully embrace. Africa needs more international cooperation and South-South exchanges of practical adaptation solutions with demonstrated results at scale. The hope is this comprehensive blueprint report can help African countries make that commitment and provide a guide to the way forward, helping to put Africa on the path to a more resilient future.
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