Africans feel the heat in a warming world

19 November 2020

Climate scientists have long warned of projections that show the African continent warming faster than much of the world, and a new update from Greenpeace shows that the heat is having an outsized impact.

This month’s “Weathering the Storm: Extreme Weather and Climate Change in Africa” report finds an increase in the overall number and frequency of heatwave days, with greater impacts felt in the north, south and eastern parts of the continent.

That’s expected to continue, with much of Africa likely to exceed a 2°C rise and more likely to see a 3-6°C rise by 2100 if high emissions continue. That’s two to four times beyond the rise limited by the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Over the last 50 years, we have already experienced a warming of 1.5°C, well over the world average. In the Sahel, climate change destroyed our crops, our homes and tore families apart through forced migration,” says Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Director of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT).

The rising temperatures are likely to lead to deaths and displacement, with up to 2 billion people forced to migrate globally. That’s especially true along the equator, which cuts across the continent from the West African rainforests of Gabon to Somalia in the Horn region, and it adds to the concern for some of the world’s most impoverished people.

The heat, along with related extreme weather patterns, is a threat to African cities of the future. Even under the optimistic but elusive global warming scenario of 1.5 °C, Nigeria’s Lagos – now home to some 14 million people – experiences heat stress. So does Khartoum in Sudan. Angola’s Luanda isn’t far behind when temperatures rise by 2.7 °C, and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo would become heat stressed at 4°C.

But Lagos is expected to be one of the Top 10 megacities of the future too, according to United Nations data, and its population will double by 2050. Kinshasa will have 22 million people by 2030. In 2018, Cairo already had 20 million. In many cases, their residents are living in slums under conditions that will only grow worse with unrelenting heat, the related high-octane storms, and disrupted food access and water shortages.

“Currently, 43 percent of Africa’s population (424,000,000 people) is urban,” the report authors note. “By 2050 this figure is predicted to increase to almost 60 percent (1,258,000,000 people).”

With the growth of Africa’s cities come related issues, like the lack of trees common to urban environments, reduced access to air conditioning or problems with increased water runoff. And it’s Africans who must lead the way in understanding both the challenges and solutions.

“There needs to be better incorporation of indigenous knowledge in scientific evidence on extreme weather events in Africa,” said report co-author Ndoni Mcunu, a doctoral student in South Africa and founder of Black Women in Science.

“African countries need to be more involved in leading the development of new databases and models rather than being dependent on countries outside Africa. This will ensure better communication, planning and future projects of events. Access to information needs to be provided at a community level.”

Africa’s climate is visualised as stripes that show how the continent’s average temperature has changed over the decades from 1850–2019. Each colored stripe represents one year; warmer years are red and cooler years are blue. The graphic was developed by Professor Ed Hawkins from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology in the United Kingdom.


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