Climate and water in a changing Africa
The following is an excerpt from an article originally published in a special issue of the journal Maze from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Africa is at the center of the global water crisis and climate upheaval. Africa contains the largest number of least developed countries of any continent, the most deplorable sanitation infrastructure, and the largest proportion of people in rural employment that are heavily dependent on weather conditions. It is here that due to global warming, crop yields are expected to decline the most; sea level rise along the African coastline is already above global averages. Africa’s pastoral communities are the largest on Earth and represent about a fifth of its population; climatic variability defines the nomadic way of life, offering many rewards but, especially in times of uncertainty, also existential risks. Increasingly erratic rainfall patterns are particularly disheartening given that no continent has less reservoir capacity for water storage. The continent remains the most marginal emitter of greenhouse gases but has perhaps the greatest untapped potential of renewable energy sources: geothermal, wind, hydro and, above all, solar. This question of Maze, with its broad and interdisciplinary focus, reflects the depth and breadth of these challenges.
Serious concerns about Africa’s climate and aridity – or, more correctly, the variability of rainfall – are not new, but have shaped external dispositions towards the continent’s social, economic and political potential over the past three years. last centuries. Stories about Africa’s erratic geography and natural resource base were central to explaining the decline and growth of imperialist ambitions on and for the continent. They were based on questionable assumptions then, and often still do today. Contrary to what is suggested by the abundance of political reports that hint at the upcoming “climate conflicts” and “water wars” in the drylands of Africa (without much empirical evidence or analytical force), the Africa is neither the driest continent on the planet, nor does it contain the greatest number of states of water stress. Much of the modeling over Central Africa and the Sahel is undermined by the lack of data, current and historical, that would be needed to underpin the catastrophic language about desertification, shrinking arable land and the inability to cultivate or to raise herds. animals. In addition, concern about the absolute levels of rainfall or the water content of African soils, important as they are, risks obscuring the arguably even more crucial issue of water distribution.
The long tradition of framing Africa through the prism of environmental determinism continues to lead much of the epistemic and political community to view the continent as a passive victim who may inadvertently exacerbate its problems. While one generally refers to the rapid growth of the African population, the average plot size in vulnerable regions and the spread of the disease, the implicit assumption is that the numbers may change, but the trends ( towards greater vulnerability) and Africa’s character – its weakness and fragility – do not. The essays in this issue provide insight into why this characterization should be questioned. They make important suggestions for rethinking how an Africa could cope with soaring temperatures, rising sea levels and increasing variability in rainfall.
The contributions here challenge conventional approaches to water, energy and food security (and ultimately political stability) as determined primarily by the total availability of resources in a particular social system. Supply constraints are a harbinger of dystopian crises in the eyes of (neo) Malthusians who fear that biophysics and demography pose “limits to growth” (that is to say a ceiling on what can be produced. ), which we ignore at our peril in the face of escalating climate change. Similarly fixed on the specter of chaos and dysfunctional institutions induced by scarcity, the discourse “Africa Rising” postulates that the transfer of technology and the provision of foreign capital offer to African entrepreneurs and to African “smart cities”, like Kigali and (parts of) Nairobi and Lagos, opportunities to escape the Malthusian trap by increasing the overall availability of scarce commodities: credit, housing, food, water, etc. The resulting policy prescriptions are therefore structured almost exclusively on the basis of (quantifiable) supply consolidation. This is a troubling nostrum with a dismal record across the continent as Jackie King and Cate Brown remind us in this collection. Nonetheless, its supporters argue that Africa’s fundamental problem is that there are too few resources.
In doing so, these two ways of imagining Africa overlook the widely divergent historical experiences that different people have with changing resource levels in their community and the different meanings attached to scarcity by various social groups: the biophysical and the social are “co-products”; one does not simply create, as an independent variable, the other. Seasoned observers of the ecosystems in which cultivators and herders pursue their livelihoods have long warned that the simplistic preoccupation with availability masks complex and multi-layered interactions between diverse communities and their environment. In the words of historian Sara Berry: “Generalizations about agricultural practices and performance in Africa are problematic not only because reliable quantitative evidence is scarce, but also because the available data is based on misleading or overtly restrictive assumptions. on the social organization of rural economic activity. “Fixing with dams, irrigation canals and mobile applications as a deus ex machina to resolve availability constraints – rather than seeking to understand how environmental changes reflect reorganizations of social relationships, and social relationships, in turn, manifest in pastures and the biochemistry of rivers, is costly. water: in turn, could worsen aspects of the contextual realities that contribute to the lack of access to safe and affordable water for all. ”
The Malthusian and Africa Rising narratives virtually ignore political participation and social relations as determinants of how climate change affects Africa – the centrality of accessibility as opposed to availability. They omit the importance of the dynamic adaptation of African actors not only to climatic processes but simultaneously to the re-imaginations and institutionalizations of these processes. A perspective that highlights the latter does not view supply (water, food, technology, etc.) as a neutral and explicit fact created by nature, states or markets. Rather, it conceives of the offer as an endogenous social relationship to various political orders: constructed by some for some and, thus, often object of contestation and instrument of domination. This underlines the importance of distributional considerations and political struggle in framing “environmental” issues.
In addition, it draws attention to the range of non-deterministic and creative interactions that African actors have with their environment: it reframes them as ingenious social agents, who actively reinterpret and resist external forces that have a local impact. on their relationship to water and climate. Shifting attention to the lived experiences and ideas of African communities vis-à-vis their environments is therefore crucial. As King and Brown put it in their article on “living rivers” managed by inter-community dialogue rather than scientifically objective decrees: “We understand that the choice of what this future condition [of how to deal with scarce water sources] should be is not scientific; there is no magic number that represents the amount of water that needs to be left in a river to keep it healthy. live, share meaning and cooperate, especially in times of seismic change. The essays in this collection focus on how diverse communities, cities and states already make sense of a changing Africa and proactively situate themselves in a changing world.
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Link to the full article: Harry Verhoeven, Climate and water in a changing Africa: uncertainty, adaptation and social construction of fragile environments. www.amacad.org/publication/cli… ater-changing-africa
Provided by Earth Institute at Columbia University
This story is republished courtesy of Earth Institute, Columbia University http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu.
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