What environmental challenges does east africa face today?

Authors: Katy Richardson, Roger Calow, Florence Pichon, Stacey New, and Rebecca Osborne

Executive summary

This report highlights the headline risks to consider in climate resilient development planning for the East Africa region. Key climate-related risks for East Africa have been identified by considering how the current climate interacts with underlying socio-economic vulnerabilities, and how projected climate change for the 2050s may exacerbate these risks.

East Africa is considered in this report as including: Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The region has a diverse climate, ranging from hot, dry desert regions, to cooler, wetter highland regions, and large variability in seasonal rainfall. The current climate is around 1-1.5˚C warmer than pre-industrial times, and there is high confidence of further warming in the future. There is less confidence about how rainfall has changed in the past or may change in the future. However, future projections indicate an increase in mean rainfall across most of the region, with high confidence for an increase over the Ethiopian highlands. Interannual variability in seasonal rainfall amounts and timings is expected to increase, as is the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events.

Climate change is one of several risks to resources, livelihoods, assets and ecosystems. East Africa is a dynamic region, experiencing rapid population growth, urbanisation and economic transformation, and assessments of climate change risks can only ever provide a partial picture of the role climate change plays in shaping development outcomes. Seeing the ‘bigger picture’ of climate risks where multiple socio-economic risks compound, will remain important for those charged with designing, monitoring and evaluating development programmes. Most risks identified in this report are not new for the region, but the severity and distribution of those risks are changing as the climate changes. Our analysis identifies the following key risks as the most critical across the East Africa region, all such risks are interdependent therefore one might heighten the impact of another. This report is based on regional analysis, therefore risks at a national level may vary and would require a more detailed country level analysis.

Risks to agriculture and food security

Despite rapid economic growth and urbanisation over the last two decades, most of the region’s poor live in rural areas and depend, directly or indirectly, on agriculture. The impacts of climate change in the region will be broadly negative in terms of agricultural production, though there will be significant variation of the scale of climate impacts across agro-ecological zones, farming systems and livelihoods. Impacts on food security, are more difficult to gauge. However, we would expect to see largely negative impacts on household purchasing power and supply chains (affecting access), as well as diminished nutrient absorption through an additional disease burden and malnutrition.

The most vulnerable to climate change particularly to changes in temperature and rainfall variability are those engaged in low intensity, low input rainfed farming, disconnected from markets and with few opportunities for building assets and breaking out of poverty. Pastoral and agro-pastoral livelihoods, significant across much of the hot, drier lowlands, may be impacted by forage and water shortages as well as heat stress, though threats to pastoralists’ wellbeing will likely be driven mainly by policies of sedentarisation and resource appropriation/fragmentation. Rising temperatures will also have a negative impact on maize and wheat yields in hotter areas, and important cash crops such as tea, coffee and cocoa are also expected to be impacted as the ability to shift farming to higher (cooler) altitudes is limited. Land degradation and soil erosion, already major problems across the region, will likely be further exacerbated by more intense rainfall events, and rising temperatures may alter disease vectors and pest populations, with adverse effects on output variability and yields, as well as on the costs of control.

Irrigation development offers an opportunity to buffer rainfall variability and increase productivity, but also carries risks where competition for water is increasing in basin hot spots, particularly during the dry season and drier years when other water demands peak. Within rainfed systems, the array of land management practices that fall under the banner of climate smart agriculture hold promise in managing rainfall variability and addressing persistent water shortages, though approaches are context-specific. As it stands, there is no regionally-applicable evidence base to guide interventions across diverse agro-ecological zones.

Risks to water resources and water-dependent services

The impacts of climate change emerge largely through the water cycle, but predicting impacts remains tricky because of the complex causal chain linking rainfall and temperature with water resources and water-dependent services. Overall water availability compares favourably with other regions, though metrics conceal problems of temporal and spatial variability. Mobilising water for lives and livelihoods remains a key challenge, though ‘hot spots’ of intensive use and over-exploitation are emerging at the urban-rural interface, and in basins where irrigation and hydropower development coincide. Groundwater storage will provide a vital buffer against rainfall variability and recharge may benefit from more intensive rainfall events. Overall impacts on water availability will likely be modest compared with demand-side drivers, particularly population growth. The impacts of climate change on water quality will be broadly negative and transmitted through rising temperatures and high flow/flood-related sediment and pollution loads. Deteriorating water quality may emerge as a bigger threat to domestic users than water availability, with knock-on impacts on health and (mal)nutrition.

Water for domestic use is a small component of national water withdrawals, but access to safe drinking water is vital for human wellbeing and climate resilience. Extending and sustaining water access remain challenging, but most groundwater-dependent rural services are resilient if existing best-practices are followed, which is currently rare. Larger, longer-lived investments in hydropower to address energy gaps risk locking in inappropriate design based on historical climate conditions. The concentration of generating capacity in the inter-connected Nile basin, an area of similar rainfall variability, means that periods of low rainfall and river flow could affect multiple sites, with concurrent reductions in electricity generation.

Risks to health

Despite significant progress on health outcomes over the last three decades, a significant proportion of the region’s population remain vulnerable to preventable deaths. By 2030, however, non-communicable (not transmittable) diseases are projected to overtake communicable (transmittable diseases), neonatal, and maternal mortality as the leading causes of death. Food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty remain overwhelmingly rural, though the pace of urbanisation and the growth of informal urban settlements may change the health landscape, with millions exposed to multiple ‘urban’ risks linked to poor housing, sanitary conditions and basic services.

Diarrheal diseases are the main causes of preventable deaths across 7 of the 11 countries in the region, particularly for young children. Rising temperatures, and the impact of heavy rainfall on sanitary conditions and water supplies will increase risks, especially given the numbers of people still lacking access to safe water and sanitation. Undernutrition is both a cause and a consequence of diarrhoea: malnutrition increases both the susceptibility to diarrhoea and the severity of episodes, with lasting impacts on growth and development. Changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures will also affect the geographic range and incidence of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and Rift Valley Fever, especially along the margins of current distribution. Rising temperatures and temperature extremes will also lead to heat stress, particularly in cities, though in rural lowland areas temperatures are already reaching the upper limits of human habitability.

Risks to urban environments and infrastructure

East Africa faces major challenges in plugging its infrastructure gap in power, irrigation, water supply, sanitation, transport, communications, electricity and flood protection. New investments needed to unlock growth and poverty reduction risk locking in climate risk to both slow onset trends such as warming, changes in multi-annual variability, fluctuations in mean precipitation conditions and changes in the frequency and intensity of extremes such as droughts and floods. Risks to existing infrastructure are most obvious in established cities, but also the growing numbers of smaller towns and cities where planned infrastructure provision lags behind urban expansion. People and businesses in ‘informal’ settlements, especially, are exposed to multiple threats, including power and communication outages, damage to housing and the destruction of water, sanitation and drainage systems.

Disruption and damage to transport infrastructure, particularly from floods, is a critical yet under-reported issue in both urban and rural areas. In rural areas where road densities are low, loss of an individual road link or bridge can leave wide areas and large numbers of people without a connection to markets, supply chains and essential services. Flood-risk management, including early warning and response, will likely grow in importance, as will more integrated and ‘greener’ approaches to infrastructure development and urban planning. Nature-based solutions to manage flood risk and deliver a range of co-benefits are widely promoted in both rural and urban settings, and at the interface between them, but may do little to solve the problem of flooding after intense rainfall events unless combined with ‘hard’ infrastructure.

Risks to coastal areas and fisheries

East Africa has a long coastline, home to some of the region’s most dynamic population centres, ports and tourism sites. A combination of rising sea levels, higher temperatures and more frequent and intense storm surges threaten livelihoods and local economies, with potential ripple effects throughout the region. This is because the ports of Djibouti, Berbera, Lamu, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam serve the region’s landlocked countries, with the low-lying coasts of Djibouti, Kenya and Tanzania most vulnerable to coastal risks. Coastal agriculture and drinking water supplies are also threatened by saline intrusion into coastal aquifers and flood damage, and coastal fisheries, coral reefs and marine ecosystems are threatened by both rising sea temperatures and marine heat waves.

East Africa also includes some of Africa’s largest freshwater lakes supporting fisheries, agriculture, and tourism, as well as climate-sensitive ecosystems and biodiversity. A combination of rising temperatures and eutrophication already pose risks to fish stocks and ecosystem health, though changes are also being driven by over-fishing and the discharge of pollutants into river and lake systems. Periodic flooding around shorelines and back-flooding into tributary rivers already cause problems, displacing people and disrupting transportation, drinking water, sanitation, and power systems.