Africa, Climate Change, and the G-8 Summit

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has declared that the two issues at the center of the G-8 Summit this July will be African poverty and global climate change. These may seem to be distinct issues. In fact, they are linked. A trip I took to a village in the Tigre region in northern Ethiopia shows why.

One morning, I was taken to a dry riverbed at the village’s edge. Farmers were digging a pit in the riverbed, down to the water table approximately two meters below ground level. They explained that until recently this was a perennial river – one that flows throughout the year – but now the river stops flowing during the dry season. Only when the annual rains begin in the summer does water reappear in the river bed. Until then, water-starved communities dig for water, if they can find it and if they can afford to pump it out.

In northern Ethiopia, as in much of Africa, the rain cycle has changed markedly in recent years. Ethiopian village life has long depended on two crops, one during a short rain in March and April, and the main crop during the long rain in the summer months. In recent years, the short rains have failed entirely, and long rains have been erratic. Hunger is omnipresent. Perhaps half of the children are severely underweight.

Much of arid sub-Saharan Africa, notably in the Sahel (the region just south of the Sahara desert), has experienced a pronounced drop in rainfall over the past quarter-century. This decline coincided with a rise in the surface temperature of the neighboring Indian Ocean, a hint that the decline in rainfall is in fact part of the longer-term process of man-made global warming.