by Lindy Mtongana
23 February 2012. Johannesburg, South Africa. The word famine is not used lightly in the humanitarian world. Specific conditions must be met before a ‘food security crisis’ is declared a ‘famine’ by the United Nations. But in July 2011, as images of animal carcasses, desperate Africans and their skeletal children began to pervade our television screens and newspapers, the word famine was more than fitting.
According to the UN a food crisis becomes a famine when at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.
At its worst the drought that ravaged Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti left over 12 million people at risk of starvation; malnutrition rates sat at 58%; and the death rate peaked at 6.1 deaths per day per 10,000 persons – the majority of those deaths being children.
The African continent has contributed least to the major environmental challenges faced by citizens across the world, but Africans are likely to suffer most from the consequences. The Horn of Africa Famine is a case in point as the true cost of food security challenges was brought to the fore. World Bank statistics show that Africa’s per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the year 2008 were 0.8 metric tonnes per person compared with the global figure of 4.8 tonnes per person. (Compare that further with the worst offender, North America, whose per capita emissions sit at 17.78 tonnes.)
Dr. Joseph Adelegan, founder of the Global Network for Environment and Economic Development Research, says sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most affected regions in the world by climate change. “With 40% of the population living in arid, semi-arid or dry areas, Africa is one of the most exposed areas to global warming,” he adds.
It was against this backdrop that more than 12,000 people descended upon the east coast city of Durban in South Africa for the first United Nations Climate Change Conference to be hosted by a sub-Saharan African nation. The stage was set for the seventeenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17) and the stakes were high. South Africa’s success would be measured as much by its commitment to promoting the concerns of vulnerable states and developing nations, as it would by its ability to steer the negotiations towards a legally binding carbon emissions deal.
Crowds of activists held demonstrations for the entire two week duration of the conference urging leaders to make the necessary commitments in order to secure a sustainable future for all.
“We are here to stand with the most vulnerable countries whose basic survival needs have not been met by the men and women in that conference hall” said Greenpeace International’s Executive Director, Kumi Naidoo. “We are here to call upon government minsters to listen to the people and not the polluters.” The activists ‘occupied’ COP17’s streets, lawns, coffee shops, hallways and seminars. They marched and chanted with an air of frenzied urgency, but their calls fell on deaf ears.
“We are disappointed with the overall outcome of COP 17,” says Ferrial Adams from Greenpeace Africa. “South Africa failed to adequately take charge of negotiations, and advance the cause of those that are currently facing major climate-related risks and challenges. South Africa had the potential to do so much more but failed to take advantage of the opportunity presented.”
It was hoped that South Africa would succeed where previous COP hosts had failed and produce a legally binding treaty that commits world leaders to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Currently the only existing treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, is voluntary and bears no legal repercussions should countries fail to meet their reduction targets. Furthermore the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires in 2012. So with the clock ticking, South Africa pushed to secure a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, which will now remain in place until 2020, by which time a legally binding commitment must be in place.
But Adams does not believe that this was a step far enough. “I am not convinced that claiming a ‘Kyoto success’ is a fair assessment of the conference. Even though Kyoto was extended, it remains a voluntary deal and the extension has pushed any hope of a legally binding treaty back by a decade.”
Another important discussion was that of the Green Climate Fund – a financial mechanism that would support activities aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change in developing nations. The Fund was officially launched in South Africa and its shape and form agreed upon, but as Adams is quick to point out, the Fund still has no host country, no trustees and no money. It’s expected that several difficult discussions still lie ahead in the coming years as the Fund seeks to define itself.
COP17 ran 36 hours into overtime making it the longest UN climate talks in history – a sure sign that even though the outcomes were not as grand as many would’ve hoped, they were hard won.
The unfortunate fact remains however: the longer it takes world leaders to make firm commitments to combating climate change, the more vulnerable communities will become as the frequency and scale of natural disasters, like the Horn of Africa Famine, increases.
Already the impact of climate change is being felt across the globe and there was certainly no shortage of examples in 2011. Hurricane Irene battered the US northeast coast, torrential rains in Korea left thousands homeless; flash floods and mudslides in Mexico killed hundreds, and a massive tsunami in Japan left a staggering 12,000 people dead.
These events are a chilling reminder of what is at stake each time world leaders fail to act decisively.
Lindy Mtongana is a freelance journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa.