Joyce Kimutai

Youth Perspectives: Adaptation Science in Least Developed Countries


Climate change is a key determinant for sustainable development, with significant direct and indirect socio-economic and environmental implications on all sectors of the local, regional and global economies. Human activity has already warmed the planet by over 1°C since pre-industrial times, and the impacts of this warming have been felt at varying magnitudes in different parts of the world. Additional warming is expected to significantly amplify existing risks and associated impacts, especially in the most vulnerable parts of the world, including the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Most of the LDCs’ total population of 1.06 bn people, which account for 13.62% of the world’s population, are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So far, progress on adaptation is uneven and there are increasing gaps between action taken and what is needed to deal with the increasing risks. A key message from the 1IPCC WGII AR6 report is the recognition of the interdependence of climate, biodiversity and people and stronger integration of natural, social, and economic sciences (IPCC, 2022). The report also highlights the increasing evidence of maladaptation in many parts of the world. Therefore, there is a need for location and context-specific adaptation measures depending on levels of vulnerability, actors involved, resources etc. This paper seeks to highlight the current and projected climate risks, levels of vulnerability and exposure and regional tipping points in Sub-Saharan Africa in an effort to communicate the need for urgent action.

Current Climate Risks and Threats in Africa

In Africa, mean and extreme temperatures are rising. The rate of surface temperature increase has generally been more rapid in Africa than the global average, with human induced climate change being the dominant driver (IPCC, 2021). Extreme weather and climate events attributable to human-induced climate change include marine heatwaves (2x more likely) (Frölicher et al., 2018; Laufkötter et al., 2020; Oliver et al., 2018; Seneviratne et al., 2021), multi-year droughts in West (Biao, 2017) and East Africa (Funk et al. 2018; Hoell and Funk; Liebmann et al., 2014) and Cape Town drought (3x more likely) (Otto et al., 2018), Eastern South Africa floods 2x more likely (Pinto et al., 2022). Africa has already experienced widespread losses and damages attributed to human-caused climate change. These include reduced food production, reduced water security, reduced economic output, loss of biodiversity, and increased human morbidity and mortality (Trisos et al., 2022). These impacts will become more severe with increased warming. An estimated 337 million people were affected by natural disasters in Africa between 2000-2019, in which floods accounted for 80% and droughts for 16%. Between 2018-2019, 6 million people were displaced by weather-related disasters in Sub-Saharan Africa and 46,078 deaths from natural disasters were reported between 2000-2019 (CRED, 2019). Globally, only Sub-Saharan Africa has reported the largest number of mortalities associated with floods since 1990 (Tellman, et al., 2021).

Vulnerability and Exposure to Climate Change in Africa

Socioeconomic, political and environmental factors drive vulnerability. Most people in Sub-Saharan Africa are employed in climate-exposed sectors: 55-62% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, and 95% of cropland is rain-fed (Ali, 2012). 66% of the urban workforce work in informal employment (ILO, 2018a; World Bank, 2020). There is growth in population, infrastructure and agriculture in areas exposed to climate hazards. Around 60% of urban dwellers in Africa live in informal settlements. There is rapid urbanization, growing informal settlements and mortality from disasters, which is 15x higher in highly vulnerable countries, especially LDCs (UNDESA, 2019b).

Climate Change has reduced economic growth across Africa. This has increased income inequality between African countries and countries in the global north, in more temperate climates (Diffenbaugh and Burke, 2019). This has particularly manifested through losses to agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, and infrastructure. GDP per capita on average declined by 13.6% (1991-2010 vs no climate change) across a number of African countries e.g., temperature impacts on GDP for Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe and Kenya (Abidoye and Odusola, 2015). Reduced productivity leads to lower macroeconomic performance e.g., in a rural town in South Africa, 80% of businesses lost >50% of employees and revenue due to agricultural drought (Hlalele et al., 2016). In southern and eastern Africa, river flows mostly decreased from 1970-2010 leading to negative and cascading impacts on multiple sectors, including hydropower generation (Trisos et al., 2022).

Projected risks

Figure 4 is the embers diagram for Africa adopted from (Trisos et al., 2022) illustrating risks and impacts at different levels of warming. The current level of global warming is 1.1°C. Above 1.5°C, there is a high risk of large regional crop losses, increasing poverty and inequality, increasing disease exposure, increasing drought, and increasing heat mortality. Above 2°C, the risks are even higher: high risk of widespread crop yield loss, widespread heat-related mortality risk, 7 to 18% of African species at risk of extinction, and over 30% decline in fisheries catch, and potential and severe risks of malnutrition. In scenarios with low adaptation, transition to high risk i.e., widespread and severe impacts have already begun for biodiversity loss. Improving the adaptive capacity of societies is key in mitigating the impacts of extreme events. In Africa, risks are expected to increase even when temperature change remains moderate or constant, since exposure and vulnerability to climate-related hazards are increasing significantly due to other human factors like population growth, urbanization, and migration (e.g., Thornton et al., 2010). 

Adaptation to current weather extremes and related climate risks should be considered a central theme in climate policy actions, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the globe. Figure 5 shows the existing gaps in adaptation research, funding, and participation in the African continent. While adaptation is cost-effective, it is vastly under-funded in the region which greatly hampers implementation. Most African countries have low adaptation research, and most studies are carried out by researchers outside of Africa. Adaptation is intrinsically a local issue and therefore requires locally-led processes and interventions to improve resilience – African problems for African solutions. Only 3.8% of global climate change research funding is spent on Africa. Even as we emphasize the importance of evidence-based climate change adaptation policy (e.g., to avoid maladaptation), the societally relevant questions should be: Are we doing our science in a vacuum? How different would the world be if scientific results were interpreted “as if people mattered”? “What is the impact of particular actions under an uncertain climate change”. Science needs to be done holistically and implemented with compassion and empathy. Adaptation including loss and damage funding should be based on vulnerability to extreme weather and climate events rather than attributability. Failure to fund adaptation where it is needed creates global supply chain vulnerabilities. 

Possible tipping points in Africa are rapidly approaching, with the question remaining as to whether they have already been reached. These include the disappearance of glaciers on Mt. Kenya, Mt. Ruwenzori, and Mt. Kilimanjaro; intense tropical cyclones (category 4/5) in various areas (reaching Maputo in Mozambique and Dar es Salam in Tanzania); the growing risk of day zero drought in cities; intense and frequent multi-years droughts (e.g., in East Africa) that severely impact maize crops and livestock, and heatwave that impact human health and increase mortality; and extirpation of species. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future, especially for the most vulnerable regions (IPCC, 2021; IPCC 2022).


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