Climate debate needs to address famine in Africa


OPINION:The climate change conference in Durban provides an opportunity to develop a sustainable global food system

RETURNING TO Somalia after 19 years, and hearing the UN declare famine in two regions, Lower Shaballe and Bakool, was heart- wrenching. We could see the evidence all around us in Dollow, which has become a transition post for Somalis en route to Ethiopia. The families who reach Dollow rest, or rather collapse, under some trees. They are given minimum food and water by a local Somali NGO, and encouraged to continue on their way to Ethiopia.

Fatima Zabe was holding her emaciated three-year-old, and her other five children were lying on the ground around her. She was barely able to answer our questions as she had walked from El Bon, about 125km away. She did not know where her husband was. The only spark of life for Fatima and the other families was when a donkey cart with water came, and they started to line up with their cans.

Nearby we visited the Mother and Child Health Centre run by the Somali District Health Board with the support of Trócaire. There were long queues of women with malnourished children waiting to be weighed and assessed. The women we spoke to referred repeatedly to gaja (hunger). The local district commissioner urged us to increase the support available, including for other areas “where children and the elderly have to be left to die before they can get here”. He told us “your eyes are your teacher”.

The plight of those living in the Horn of Africa brought home the terrible vulnerability of the people living there to weather and climate shocks. East Africa has experienced above normal temperatures for eight successive years resulting in devastating drought. Since the food price crisis of 2008, food security has again been high on the agenda of donors, NGOs and multilateral aid agencies as they recognised the central role that agriculture plays in helping people to escape from dire poverty and famine. The more recent scenes from the Horn of Africa reinforced the imperative of sustaining efforts and attention on food and nutrition security.

The 2011 Global Hunger Index, jointly published by Concern Worldwide, the International Food Policy Research Institute and Welthungerhilfe, concluded that 26 countries have levels of hunger that are “alarming” or “extremely alarming”. The latter – Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea – are all in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report’s three main recommendations are: to revise biofuel policies so as to balance the potential benefits of biofuels with the potential negative impact on food and feed markets; to regulate financial activities in food markets which have become highly volatile; and to adapt to and mitigate extreme weather change.

An opportunity exists to make progress on the last of these recommendations at the Durban Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The conference should work to achieve the following three objectives:

First, make progress on a legally binding agreement. A legally binding deal on climate change is the only meaningful way forward. Central to this is agreement on the future of the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire at the end of December next year unless a second commitment period is agreed; and the need for a new legally binding agreement to lock in ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reductions and provide support for developing countries.

Even if it is too much to expect a legally-binding agreement to be concluded at Durban, there is an urgent need to make progress on a package which brings together the two negotiating tracks, addressing the Kyoto Protocol and the convention, to pave the way for a convergence phase during which the Kyoto Protocol continues to operate while steps are taken to work towards a new legally binding instrument. This is ambitious but achievable and could chart the way towards agreement on a new legally binding instrument by 2015.

Second, find room for discussions on agriculture in the climate change framework. Addressing climate change and achieving sustainability in the global food system need to be recognised as dual imperatives. Agriculture, particularly rain-fed agriculture, is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Changes in the planting seasons and increased difficulty accessing grazing and water for livestock are already challenges that farmers and herders have to face.

In addition, agriculture is a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Strategies which can increase production, safeguard natural resources and increase resilience while reducing emissions are needed to enable climate-smart agriculture.

The African agriculture ministers’ meeting in Johannesburg this September discussed climate-smart agriculture. They called for “an agriculture programme of work that covers adaptation and mitigation” under the UNFCCC. Also in September, a similar call was made at a meeting of African ministers for the environment in Bamako, Mali. These are clear messages for Durban and could help to provide a platform to address the linked challenges of food and nutrition security and climate change.

Third, the gender dimensions of climate change should be highlighted in the outcomes from the Durban conference. Gender is a key focus from an agriculture and food and nutrition security perspective. Women are especially vulnerable to climate change and its impacts on food and nutrition security. Between 60 and 80 per cent of the food produced in most developing countries is produced by women.

Women hold a special position as agents of change in the face of climate change: they manage many of the world’s agricultural resources and are also likely to have primary responsibility for the care of children. Any effort to increase productivity, adapt to climate change, manage climate risk or mitigate agricultural emissions must address the differences in how women and men manage their assets and activities. In particular, historical tendencies to underplay the role of women must be redressed.

Achieving food security is complex. But a situation where almost a billion people go hungry every day, where a further billion are malnourished, is an affront to us all. Progress at Durban could build a strong momentum to put justice and equity at the heart of international responses to climate change as we prepare for the 20th anniversary of the landmark Rio Earth Summit next June. We urge those gathering in Durban not to let this opportunity pass.

Mary Robinson is president of Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, and Tom Arnold is chief executive of Concern Worldwide