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At a tipping point?

BY JOYCE NJERI / 30 January 2008

LAST week, the world's focus was on Davos. Of course, climate change dominated the agenda at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps as well as other global events like the market turmoil.

The forum, which attracts an estimated 2,400 participants from 90 countries each year, brought together business leaders, politicians and green campaigners. But one of the key topics discussed at the Forum was climate change and Africa.

These are issues that cannot be ignored any longer. Just recently the United Nations warned that gains made in human development in Africa may be reversed if climate change is not checked. Why Africa? The answer is simple. Although it has the lowest per capita fossil energy use of any major world region, Africa may be the most vulnerable continent because widespread poverty limits countries' capabilities to adapt.

Already signs of a changing climate in the continent have emerged; spreading diseases and melting glaciers in the mountains, rising temperatures in drought-prone areas, and sea-level rise and coral bleaching along the coastlines. These are a few examples. Lake Chad, now popularly known as 'the disappearing lake', has had its surface area decreased from 9,650 square miles in 1963 to a mere 421 square miles today. Seychelles Islands and the Indian Ocean are experiencing coral reef bleaching, 51 per cent of Mount Kenya's glacier has disappeared over the years and the ice cap on Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro has shrunk by more than 80 per cent since 1900. Senegal's sea level has risen, causing the loss of coastal land at Rufisque, on the country's South Coast.

All these could be attributed to the fact that Africa is fast becoming an overpopulated, over-consuming continent. This in turn leads to higher economic production without regard for environmental impact. There's also an increased dependency on coal — the carbon-heavy fuel that is the 'the enemy of the human race'.

While many developing countries have made significant progress in human development with millions of people being lifted out of poverty every year, violent conflict, lack of resources, insufficient coordination and weak policies continue to slow down development progress, particularly in Africa.

The document published by the United Nations Development Programme provides a stark account of the threat posed by global warming and argues that the world is drifting towards a 'tipping point' that could lock the world's poorest countries and their poorest citizens on a downward spiral. If this happens, the document warns, it will leave hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats and a loss of livelihoods.

The report, titled 'Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World', drew attention to the scale of the changes occurring in the global climate, the connection between human activities and climate change, and the effects of climate change. It is common knowledge that what we do today about climate change has consequences that will last a century or more.

Therefore, genuine concern about the effect of climate change on future generations dictates that we must act now. It's important to note that it is not only Africa that is facing problems. Areas of South Asia and northern China face a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns, which are partly attributed to global warming.

Therefore, taking action now is a form of insurance against massive losses. So let us all seize the chance that exists to safeguard the one thing we all share in common, that is, mother Earth.

The writer is a sub-editor with Khaleej Times. She can be reached at joyce@khaleejtimes.com

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