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Post COP16 Perspective from African Union: Climate Change Matter of Life and Death

One day after the close of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP16) in Cancun, Mexico, Green Canary Sustainability Consulting CEO Kevin Tuerff interviewed a delegate from Africa to learn his thoughts about the outcome of the conference. Dr. Yemi Akinbamijo is an agriculture expert with extensive experience in food security and rural development. He heads the Agriculture and Food Security Division at the African Union Commission headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The African Union represents 53 African countries. Tuerff and Akinbamijo discussed climate’s role in critical water and food security needs, who should fund global mitigation and adaptation efforts, and thoughts about COP17 in South Africa in 2011.

Tuerff: We are both leaving COP 16, what are your thoughts about the outcome and are you optimistic about the future?

Akinbamijo: Yes, where we are today is a lot better than where we were last year. (after COP15) For all intents and purposes, I think there is a more serious sign in terms of commitment of the parties in terms of genuine concern and transparency with good process has been moved forward since Copenhagen and Africans are much happier with what they got out of Cancun and looking forward to a much better development in 2011.

Tuerff: Do you believe a global treaty is possible at Durbin?

Akinbamijo: Well as they say in football, anything can happen. We would wish for the best, but it’s really in murky waters and it will, or can happen, if everybody would choose to sing from the same page, with no hidden agendas. Having said that, we all know where the problem is, but who’s going to fix it.

Tuerff: You have a story you tell that explains how Africa looks at climate adaptation.

Akinbamijo: Right. It is a story that mirrors climate change implications in the world.  Thinking about the African scenario where people still live in huts covered with thatch roofs, not multi storied buildings, and in a roof that has a hole is a concern for everyone in the house.  I refer to song by Harry Belafonte, the song “A hole in the bucket,” but now it is not a hole in the bucket, it is a hole in the roof. And the hole in the roof is like the hole in the ozone layer and there is a need to fix the hole in the roof if we want to sleep easy.  In Africa, people still sleep on mats and bare floors, so if you have a leaking roof there is a proverb that says “if the roof leaks, and even if you are on the dry patch, do not snore.”

On a bigger scale now if there is a hole in the roof, what we do in Africa, we have one of two options.  Mop up the water as it drops from the roof, and then you do not sleep.  That for us is adapting to the change of climate.  The second option is a much more expensive but efficient option.  Let us fix the hole in the roof.  Pull down the roof and let us build a new one.  Or let us go up there and fix the hole.  And that’s what we will all have to do to sleep easy.

But there is reluctance, there has been lack of commitment in the process, but I think the outcome of the Cancun meeting is we are beginning to see a difference in the way it is no longer business as usual.

I would have loved to see stronger commitment from some parties but, as I mentioned earlier, half a loaf of bread is better than none, and I think Africa has come away from Cancun with a stronger fortune and I think I cannot complain for what we got.

Tuerff: Let me ask you, one of the issues that needs to be decided is which countries will pay from developed countries to help developing countries deal with climate mitigation and adaptation.   What would you say to an American who is facing a poor economy and deficits in our federal government? Why should they support using their tax dollars to support climate change mitigation in Africa?

Akinbamijo: There is a micro problem, and you don’t fix a micro problem at the expense of the macro problem. There is a saying in Africa that “when the sky is falling it doesn’t just fall on one single roof, it’s going to fall on all of us.”  This is a global responsibility.  The issues of climate change are a global responsibility and I am not just calling on individual Americans to solve the problem. We are calling on governments of developed countries to show their commitment and political will, and up their game in dealing with the problem of climate change.  At some point, you know, as we say, a bullet never flies with one wing. I mean, the whole problem of climate change needs to have a holistic approach.  We all know that from Copenhagen there is a hundred billion dollar bill to be paid to solve the problem of climate change. The question is now, who is going to pick up this bill? I think the more logical question is who is able to pay.  I mean, at this moment in dealing with climate change issues; we have to think of the political stands of looking out for your brother.  Be your brothers’ keeper, we know that the developed countries whose GDPs, people are still having capital income, a country where 80% of the people make less than dollar a day, would not contribute to a hundred billion dollar fund.  It doesn’t make sense, but yet is a question of the political will of the developed countries against the countries that have created most of this problem and we are calling on them to fix this problem. It’s a moral obligation. It’s not a compulsion per se. If we should be sincere with ourselves, this is a moral obligation that the West owes the whole world.

Tuerff: Finally, tell me, in your work in dealing with food issues and climate issues, can you tell me any stories, as you are working throughout Africa, of has affected you personally?

Akinbamijo: Kevin, I will tell you straight and direct, climate change is an issue of life and death in Africa. I have seen communities relocated.  Remember, there are hundreds and thousands of families that are life dependent communities that were forced to relocate because of climate related events.

Tuerff: Like what?

Akinbamijo: Drought.  Emergence of diseases, new diseases that the populations are unable to cope with.  They are hurt.  This is very serious.

Tuerff: Which countries?

Akinbamijo: Ethiopia, Kenya  across the Sahara, there you find life dependent communities. There are also countries in which people have become hungry because they are no longer able to grow what they eat, and remember a third of global food aid still comes to east and southern Africa on an annual basis.  How long shall we stretch this?  So, the sooner that we are able to deal with climate change, and also remember this is a domino effect in climate change, when it comes to peace and security.  As I said, it is a question of livelihood, it is a question of resource sharing, it is a question of community-based governance and so on.  These are the key elements for security for conflict prone areas in Africa. So if climate is changing, and places are becoming drier and floods are occurring at a more rapid frequencies, people are bound to react, people are bound to emigrate. And when they emigrate with their livestock, this is their life.  I mean, whatever touches their livestock for example, touches their blood. So, that’s the way to look at it.  In the West, climate change can be interpreted in capital and so on and so on.  In Africa, it is interpreted in livelihood in cost of livelihood and people are dying.  If the farmer loses his herd, he commits suicide the next day.  That’s how serious it gets.  So, in my daily work in food security and agriculture, I cannot say it in a more serious light, than to say that the issue of climate is an issue of livelihood. And this is a continent where 80% of the workforce derive their livelihood from farming.  So, if climate change is not properly addressed, livelihood is grossly, grossly undermined. And, you can stretch it on however you want to, but lives are being affected on a daily basis.

Tuerff: I am going to ask one more question.  I think for Americans, climate change is hard for us to understand; the problem is so complex, it’s hard to grasp what to do.  I think some Americans would say we can’t solve world hunger. It seems to me that almost no one would disagree that everyone deserves clean drinking water.  American taxpayers might be willing to support funds to provide clean drinking water to all of Africa.

Akinbamijo: The water problem in Africa exists simply because I think we need to put our policies straight.  That is the first step, to put our water policies in place and ensure that they are drawn up in a modernistic approach.   In other words, all the stakeholders that will affect water.

In Africa, we have enough water; we have some of the greatest rivers in the world in Africa.  Look, Africa is still under capacitated because of current policies.  Most of the policies that were put in place are not robust enough to actually address the need of water in the continent.  Water is a very political commodity.  Let me put it that way.  And whatever is politicized, there is an economic value on it.  So, I think we do need to revisit our water polices.  There is an African ministers’ conference on water, which has been put in place by the heads of state of the African Union. And they are doing their best.  Again, as I said, drawing up continent-wide polices, implementing them, that’s where the challenge is.  I think that is something that we still need to take a look at.

Let me also say this: there is also a climate change impact on the water bodies that we have in Africa.  Let me give you an example, from Lake Chad. Lake Chad has been the continent’s greatest concern.  It has been declining, and the water bodies have lost close to 80 percent of their water over the last 20 years. That has become a big cause for concern in the surrounding lake countries like Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon and other countries that also benefit from Lake Chad. Because those countries­–that’s where the livestock that supplies Africa–is based.

Kevin Tuerff, CEO of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting and president of EnviroMedia Social Marketing,  reported for Environmental Leader from the UNFCCC in Cancún, Mexico.

More COP16 updates available at GreenDetectives.net.

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