Climate change and water — why early warning systems are key to communities’ survival

Water problems as a result of climate change, in the form of droughts and devastating floods, will have dire consequences on African communities, economies and ecosystems. 

A report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found that because of climate change, rainfall patterns are increasingly getting disrupted.

As a result, rising water demand combined with limited and unpredictable supplies of rainfall threatens to aggravate conflict and displacement in African countries.

“Disruption in water availability [caused by drought] will impede access to safe water and threatens to trigger conflicts between people who are already contending with economic challenges. Around 418-million people still lack even a basic level of drinking water and 779-million people lack basic sanitation services,” it said.

According to the report, 27 out of 54 African countries have inadequate capacity to implement Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), a process designed by the World Bank to help countries ensure sustainability of water usage, build climate resilience and strengthen integrated management without compromising the environment. This is to ensure that countries have access to fresh drinking water.

It added that in West Africa, the long-term decline in river flow is attributed to the increase in temperature, drought and heightened water demand. 

“The total surface area of Lake Chad, which is located close to the Sahara desert, bordering Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, has shrunk from 25 000 km² in the 1960s to 1 350 km² in the 2000s and remained stable since.”

Displacements

As a result, many people continue to be displaced by climate-related hazards. It added that chronic floods and droughts, sea level rise, and extreme weather events all influence displacement patterns within borders and across international borders. 

“In 2021, around 14.1-million people were internally displaced in Sub-Saharan Africa, including around 11.5-million due to conflict and violence and 2.5 million due to disasters,” it said.

WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said water shortages will continue to displace thousands of people and increase destabilising effects on communities.

“The worsening crisis and looming famine in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa shows how climate change can exacerbate water shocks, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and destabilising communities, countries and entire regions,” he said.

The report added that because Africa has a low rate of implementation of warning systems, it falls victim to climate change hazards and a loss of livelihoods.

“There is a need to fill the capacity gap in collecting data for basic hydrometeorological variables which underpin better climate services and early warning systems to save lives and livelihoods. There should be greater investment in end-to-end drought and flood early warning systems in at-risk, especially for drought warning in Africa,” it said.

Last year, State of the Climate in Africa 2021, in a report found that extreme weather and climate change are undermining human health and safety, food and water security and socio-economic development. 

“Africa only accounts for about 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions but suffers disproportionately from the results,” the report said. 

It added that high water stress is estimated to affect about 250 million people in Africa and is expected to displace up to 700 million people by 2030.

“Four out of five African countries are unlikely to have sustainably managed water resources by 2030,” it found.

But there’s hope

The WMO report added that around 40 African countries have revised their national climate plans (Nationally Determined Contributions) to make them more ambitious and add greater commitments to climate adaptation and mitigation. 

Although Africa contributes only 2%-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, “more than 83% of national climate plans include greenhouse gas reduction targets, with focus areas including energy, agriculture, waste, land use and forestry”.

The report noted that although there is a greater move to evade climate change, Africa needs more investment in strengthening early warning systems that will help increase transboundary cooperation, data exchange and knowledge sharing. 

Taalas said that climate change has caused Africa’s climate to warm more than global average since the pre-industrial times of 1850 to the 1900s.

“The sea level rise along African coastlines is faster than the global mean, contributing to increases in the frequency and severity of coastal flooding and erosion, and salinity in low-lying cities. Changes in continental water bodies have major impacts on the agriculture sector, ecosystems, biodiversity,” Taalas said.

Early detection

The report added that only 40% of the African population have access to early warning systems to protect them against extreme weather and climate change impacts. 

“Currently, 28 countries provide climate services from basic to essential level and only nine provide those services at a full level. Only four countries are providing end-to-end drought forecasting or warning services at a full/advanced capacity level,” it said.

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