The writer is Dean of the Faculty at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
The past few months alone should have been an urgent wake-up call for us all — and particularly for world leaders gathering in Egypt for COP27. Floods in Nigeria have killed more than 600 people and damaged or destroyed vast areas of farmland. In Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, one of the worst droughts in decades is putting 22mn people, including 10mn children, at risk of starvation.
Sub-Saharan Africa has been particularly hard hit, with 37 out of 52 countries suffering from extremely high food insecurity, according to a new report by the Institute for Economics and Peace and a staggering 206mn people at extreme risk of water insecurity.
Unless we act now to support and scale innovation on the continent, things are going to get much worse for food and water security. By 2050, population in Africa will have increased by 95 per cent. This will put extraordinary pressure on its fragile food and water infrastructure, already the most vulnerable in the world and particularly threatened by global warming.
Put simply, we are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, and we — and the global leaders assembled at COP27 — must do all we can to avoid it. The most urgent priority is to provide immediate support to those affected by the latest natural disasters, as well as the drop in grain shipments from Ukraine. Unicef’s Rania Dagash recently warned of an “explosion of child deaths” in the Horn of Africa if we don’t do more to save lives.
Wealthy nations must also deliver on the promise made in Paris in 2015, when we all set out to limit rising global temperatures to 1.5C. Given the immense suffering caused by food insecurity, acting is a moral imperative.
But it also happens to be in the self-interest of the Global North. While African countries will bear the brunt of food and water shortages, it’s only a matter of time until these issues affect the rest of the world, in the form of higher migration pressure and supply chain disruptions. Warmer temperatures will also make zoonotic diseases more common, potentially causing another global pandemic. When that happens, the world will need African scientists such as Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum — who helped discover the Ebola virus in 1976 and is still working to identify new pathogens in Congo. But they must be able to operate in a politically and economically stable environment.
Rebuilding the continent’s food and water systems to withstand future climate shocks will require international co-operation — and, critically, innovation led by African scientists, engineers, farmers, financiers, entrepreneurs and political leaders. Priorities should include increasing agricultural productivity, improving crop storage systems and providing farmers with high-yielding seeds and fertilisers. We also need to build early warning weather systems, flood barriers and new roads and railways to connect farmers to the areas most affected by food scarcity.
Expanding access to groundwater would be a good place to start. According to the African Ministers’ Council on Water, the volume of groundwater in Africa is about 20 times that of river and lakes. Yet in drought-stricken sub-Saharan Africa, less than 5 per cent of what is available is currently being used. Expanding that and investing in desalination plants could strengthen the region’s resilience against droughts and other climate shocks; most countries in Africa have enough groundwater to last decades, even if rainfalls diminish.
One economic simulation suggests that doubling investment in groundwater development in Uganda, for example, could increase the country’s agricultural gross domestic product by 7 per cent and lift 500,000 people out of poverty. That’s a powerful return.
Too often, the Global North takes a top-down approach, imposing plans generated in America or Europe on other regions of the world. But the best way to solve Africa’s food and water crisis is to support Africans in developing their own solutions, drawing on their experience with local conditions, local politics and local capacity. Take the Hello Tractor app, designed to help farmers rent agricultural equipment and founded by a Kenyan entrepreneur, or Niger’s Tech Innov, a tele-irrigation system that automatically monitors temperature, soil moisture content and wind speed, and regulates the water flow accordingly. Great ideas, as we know, come from everywhere. We just need to be open to hearing them.
In 2009, at COP15 in Copenhagen, wealthy countries committed to invest $100bn annually by 2020 for climate action in low- and middle-income countries. It’s time to deliver on that promise. We have a responsibility to make sure that the people who least contributed to this crisis don’t end up paying the highest price.