Consequences of Climate Change in sub-Saharan Africa

By Anthony Poggo, Bishop of Kajo-Keji, Province of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan
A paper given to the Self Select Group on Climate Change Lambeth Conference 31 July 2008

Climate changes in many parts of Africa and especially Sudan have been conspicuous and noticeable. The apparent concerns over the enormous consequences of climatic changes that are staring sub-Saharan Africa in the face must draw concerted efforts towards actions that must redress the related challenges.

Changes in Seasons
While growing up in Kajo-Keji, Southern Sudan, I used to note that annual seasons were easily predictable. We had our rainy season from March/April to October/November. The dry season was from November to March. During this period, you’d know that there would be no rains and you would also know when there would be rains in preparation for the planting season. The months of May, June and July were usually the wet months of South Sudan. Nowadays, this is not the case any more. This year, for example, the seasons have drastically changed. The month of July that usually experiences significant rains is yet to receive rains as crops continue to wilt. It is believed that clouds that should have caused the rains have been blown away by the strong westerly winds to the east, which has resulted into the monsoon floods that continue to submerge areas across Indonesia and the Philippines.

Sadly, this trend has been so for the last few years. Last year there were floods in most parts of Sudan and Eastern Africa.  The glaring examples entail the recurrent occurrence droughts in places that had not experienced droughts before; prevalence of floods out of season and at awkward times and places; stronger westerly winds presumptively leading to drier environments and the citing of harsh weather conditions that are linked to the many plane crashes; extinction of plant species, lower rates of photosynthesis and water levels. All of the above have contributed in one way or another to the diminishing levels of crop yields.

Sudan’s Sudd region
An important consequence of climate change in Sudan is the slow drying up of the sudds in central Sudan. This is a matter of grave concern caused by, among other factors, the proposed drainage of these sudds in the 70s due to the excavation of the Jonglie Canal. This project was one of the reasons that made Southern Sudan to take up arms to wage a military protest, and should not be treated lightly. The climatic conditions in parts of the Sudan are worsened by the increase in animal grazing in the Sahel region, especially in the light of the influx of returning IDPs as well as other new settlers. Increase in human population is forcing man to encroach on this formerly unsettled land, i.e. the sudds. As communities continue to encroach the exotic forests that usually harbour wild-animal diseases, these diseases are inflicting more and more people. Some of these diseases are so unique that they are thought to have been responsible for causing prophylactic shocks that have reportedly caused the deaths of many people in the area. This is simply so firstly because human biochemical systems cannot prototype the diseases; and secondly because there is no known cure of these diseases in the 'human' world.

In this regard, the Sudanese and Egyptian governments anticipated that the solution would be the excavation of the Jonglei Canal, thus draining the waters of the swamps in the area (the sudd region). Nonetheless, Egypt is dependent on the Nile and was only too keen to increase its water supply in order to expand its agricultural production. Thus in 1959, Sudan and Egypt signed the Nile Water Agreement, which allowed for the construction of the Aswan Dam. The agreement also looked at the issue of quantifying and distributing the shares of the Nile Waters.

The flooding, water logging and creepy flow of the water in the sudd region have had negative consequences on farming in the area. Yongo-Bure suggests that there is a need to retain the excess water during the rain season so as to use the same during the dry season. He further recommends excavation of many watering points by way of widening sections of the seasonal rivers and steams.

Unfortunately, the plans to construct the Jonglei Canal rekindled the deeply seated distrust that Southern Sudanese have on Northern Sudan. It also brought to the fore the suspicion between the Sudan and Egypt. It was generally perceived that since Egypt is keen to increase its need for water, it might not be in its interest to pay attention to the environmental impact of the Canal on the people of Southern Sudan. Even so, it is largely unknown if there has been any efforts made to look at an alternative to the excavation of the Canal?

Is there any link between war and climatic change?
In 1990, Dr. Butrous Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations, also former Foreign Minister of Egypt, reportedly said that the next war that Egypt would fight would be over the issue of the Nile, not politics. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report says that the main conflict in Africa during the next 25 years could be over water. An article appearing in a Kenyan daily (Daily Nation, 27 June 2008) posed a question on whether or not the wars in sub Saharan Africa were the effect of climatic change.  The same query has been raised over the civil war in Darfur.

Although answering these questions may require one to provide some scientific evidence, it is worth mentioning that the decline in water availability and the increase of droughts and floods alone, are enough reason to link changes in the climate to their impact on the socio-economic development of sub Saharan Africa. The historic seasonal migration of Northern Sudanese nomads from their domains in the north to some parts of Southern Sudan can lead to war if such remains unhampered. To this fact, Southern Sudan's President has directed the authorities in the bordering areas to allow the Misseriya nomads to access grazing areas during dry seasons. Scarcity of cattle grazing lands for Southern Sudanese pastoralists is enough to cause inter tribal conflicts, which have the potential to escalate and degenerate into a resource-based warfare between the South and the North. The recent eruption of fight in Abyei indicates the fragility of the situation at hand.

The Sudan Civil war
One of the effects of war on people is the attitude of disregard for the environment. During the 21 years of war in Sudan, there was wanton harvest of large forests in Southern Sudan either for sale of the timber or as a source of fuel for cooking (charcoal). Conversely, no mitigation efforts were made to plant more trees. I remember my earlier years of school when we were reminded to “cut one tree - plant two trees”. We were made to value forests as a vital part of the larger environment that must be carefully managed if they are to be sustainable.  Most countries have adopted policies to promote sustainable management of forests. Unless this is done, population increase will put much pressure on the forest leading to its over utilization and eventual deforestation. As a Church/Christian response in our diocese, we have made a deliberate effort to intensify tree planting. Thus whenever we dedicate a new Church, we plant trees. In this vein and in striving to teach by example, we recently dedicated three new Churches and planted at least 15 trees.

Millennium Development Goals
The climate is closely linked to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Seventh MDG is about ensuring environmental sustainability. Some of the targets to meet this MDG include the need to protect the environment, to reduce by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation and to significantly improve the lives of slum dwellers through provision of decent and affordable housing for the world’s poor.

Water is life!
An article on the MDGs in Footsteps (a Tear fund – UK newsletter) indicates that 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation and that over 1 billion people are without access to safe drinking water. The article says over 5 million children under five years of age die every year from water borne diseases caused by inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.

Sudan has many big rivers, including the Nile, but these are scattered in different parts of the country so that getting water from these rivers to the people who need it is practically difficult and too expensive. Even where a water source may be close by, people are unable to take advantage of it. Cities like Juba and Malakal are just by the River Nile, yet most of the residents of these towns struggle with the problem of lack of water. In Juba, people live as if they are hundreds of miles away from the world’s longest river yet it is just a stone’s throw away from most residential areas!

Apart from the need to plant more trees in order to protect the soil and provide shade, fuel wood and windbreaks, Footsteps recommends a number of practical suggestions, which include the need to build hand-dug latrines and the use of efficient cooking stoves that save fuel. For families with corrugated iron sheeted house roofs, it is recommended that they use this for collecting rainwater for drinking. If such ideas are implemented we will be taking important steps to ensuring that the 7th MDG is achieved in Southern Sudan.

The ongoing changes in the climate arguably are easily linked to the acceleration of the southward encroachment of the Sahara desert. Changes in the climate have also affected the availability of water in my village with some of the rivers that used to retain water during the rainy season no longer doing so. There is a river called “Linyakure” (literally meaning ‘finisher of thirst’) that used to remain swollen is now receding fast during dry seasons, having become narrower and sand filled. What we are witnessing in my village appears to represent the general phenomenon that follows climate change in many parts of sub Saharan Africa. It is important that we do something on the changes in the climate. Doing nothing is not an option. The church can play a significant role in enlightening the people. The church meets more people face to face every week and can therefore be the best avenue to bring this issue to its adherents.

The Rt. Revd Anthony Poggo is Bishop of Kajo-Keji in the Province of Sudan of the Episcopal Church