Warning: This article contains images of dead animals that some readers may find distressing
After two weeks of fractious discussions, at the very last minute COP27 came up with an agreement on ‘loss and damage’ – providing financial assistance to poorer nations who are already facing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. But how long will it take for these words to translate into actions?
As I learned from speaking to four people at the conference who are experiencing the climate emergency first-hand, they can’t wait. People and livestock are dying, land is being ruined by drought and flooding, and communities are being devastated. This is all happening now, not at some vague point in the future.
It’s very difficult for those most affected to make their voices heard – even if they managed to get to the conference. People from rural communities often don’t feel represented by their governments because their traditional culture and way of life are not understood properly. Language can be a barrier too. For those still in their home countries who want to tell their stories, it’s even harder.
I spoke to two farmers from Kenya and Senegal, a women’s rights activist from Kenya, and a climate scientist from Pakistan about the ever-worsening impacts of climate change on their own lives and communities and, in particular, on food production and food security.
Global food insecurity
Food production and distribution systems are in trouble globally, thanks to rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and extreme weather events. The number of people around the world affected by hunger rose to 828 million in 2021, an increase of 46 million on the previous year.
The choice of Egypt as the location for COP27 was fitting, as the country is a bellwether for the impacts of climate change. The Middle East and North Africa are warming at twice the global average, and the average temperature is nearly two degrees hotter than at the start of the 20th century. In January, the country announced it is in a state of water poverty.
In the Horn of Africa, the situation is particularly dire as people face the worst droughts in four decades. More than 20 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are struggling to find enough to eat, and more than a million have fled their homes due to extreme drought.
For these people, the implications of climate change are stark – they must adapt or starve. After COP26 was criticised for not covering food security and justice, COP27 focused on agriculture, with a specific call to help the transition to sustainable, climate-resistant agriculture systems.
COP27 did produce two welcome announcements on agriculture: the Adaptation Agenda, intended to build resilience against climate change; and the Food and Agriculture for Sustainable Transformation (FAST) initiative to increase financial support for food and agriculture systems.
Speaking about FAST, COP27 president Sameh Shoukry said: “The impact of climate change is disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities around the world. To address this imbalance, we need to develop sustainable farming and food systems and meet the urgent needs of food-importing developing countries.”
However, throughout the negotiations, the Global North was criticised for supporting future actions while not honouring previous commitments. The UK (which has signed up to the FAST initiative) missed the September deadline to provide $288m to the Green Climate Fund. This money is to help countries adapt to and mitigate the climate emergency, something that is desperately needed for food security around the world.
Monica Yator, women’s rights activist, Kenya
Monica Yator, the founder of the Indigenous Women and Girls Initiative in Kenya, is living through one of the worst droughts the country has ever seen after five consecutive rainy seasons failed.
When we spoke at COP27, Monica described a chilling incident that had just happened in her home village of Baringo in the Rift Valley: “A lady collapsed yesterday and died, leaving a three-month-old baby and several other [children]. She was just going to fetch water – seven kilometres away. She couldn’t make it back because of lack of food, fatigue and malnutrition. Maybe because after giving birth, there is not enough food to eat.”
The catastrophic drought means walking seven kilometres to find water is not unusual; in some parts of Kenya, 90% of water sources have dried up, says the UN.
The impact of a lost crop has a far bigger impact than hunger alone. “Women are doing a lot of farming activities. And if they fail to produce food, that affects [them] physically, emotionally and also mentally,” said Monica.
Climate change – and the starvation it has caused – is haunting her community and particularly impacting women’s daily lives. “Women are the backbone of society, they have to farm, look after the livestock, fetch firewood, look for water [over] long distances,” she said.
Men are suffering too. Looking at a picture of local men with their livestock that died just a few days ago, Monica explained that mental health and loss of food are intrinsically linked. She said that many men will “become alcoholics in denial” and “die of depression”.
Children are also impacted. Educational dropout rates have soared, with Unicef estimating that more than 3.5 million children in the Horn of Africa are at risk of dropping out of school as a result of the drought – triple the number from six months ago.
Monica explained that the loss of education is a direct result of hunger: “They don’t have the energy to walk to school.” She described one young boy from a nearby village who “could not move because the bones are weak. He had not eaten for days, so he had to be airlifted to Nairobi for treatment.”
The number of young girls being married off for dowry payments or to ease economic pressure on households is also increasing. Unicef reports on “alarming rates of child marriage and FGM across the Horn of Africa”, with child marriage in the most drought-stricken parts of Ethiopia more than doubling in a year.
If the rains do come, the water can’t soak into the excessively dry land, resulting in flash floods that devastate entire communities. Several people were swept away into Lake Baringo in 2021, Monica says, including some disabled residents who were unable to run. She said: “The flash flood, it comes and carries everything [away]. You see it coming through the trees. Those who survived survived, but those who didn’t make it, they died.”
We’ve been having so many COPs without action. There’s a lot of talk and talk… We need to see action.
Thousands of people are currently displaced by drought and flooding. In July, Dadaab – Kenya’s biggest refugee camp – had a population of more than 230,000.
It wasn’t always like this, Monica said. When she was a child, her mother’s granary was always full of food and they never missed a meal. The climate was more predictable, and it was easier to survive because it rained three times a year and they knew when to prepare the land to ensure a good crop.
Monica’s community can’t wait for an agreement on loss and damage. “We are losing lives. We are seeing people collapsing and dying,” she said.
“We’ve been having so many COPs without action. There’s a lot of talk and talk. I can see my government delegation, [with] millions of money. What are they doing here? We are seeing a lot of sad news. We need to see action.”
Tumal Orto Galdibe, pastoralist, Kenya
Tumal Orto Galdibe, a pastoralist from the village of Maikona in the Chalbi desert, northern Kenya, and a member of the Indigenous Gabra people, is also looking for action.
Tumal’s family has been rearing goats, sheep and camels for more than 300 years. He knows only too well the impact of climate change. “If it’s not going to rain, animals are going to die,” he said. He calculates that his community has lost more 200,000 animals since 2017, which is when he started to see the impacts of climate change on his traditional way of life.
This year has been particularly bad. In 2017, he lost around 225 animals (sheep, goats, some camels and a few donkeys). This year, it’s around 350. When we spoke, he’d only been at COP27 for a few days, but he’d been told that in that time he’d lost a further 30 goats, three camels and two donkeys.
He told me that they’d had “just one day of rain” this year. “After that, from January to now, there is no water. There is no pasture, and the animals keep on dying, so people have started sharing the little relief food they get with their animals.”
Losing animals has a personal as well as a financial impact. “These animals have been with me as they had been with my father and grandfather. We have a lot of attachments to these animals. I just pray that that’s not the end of life,” the 65-year-old said.
Tumal thinks he and his fellow pastoralists should be recognised as victims of climate change. Talking about the displacement of people from their traditional lands, he said: “The climate is doing injustice to them, they are becoming refugees. It is climate change that is making you displaced within a short time.”
In order to have a chance to adapt to a changing climate, he wants COP27 to come up with a mechanism for adaptive resilience – but any policy that does not respect the pastoral way of life would be “disastrous” for him and his community.
“Rescue means not to keep on giving me relief maize and beans, I’m asking for sustainability,” he said.
Mainouna Diouf, farmer, Senegal
Mainouna Diouf is a Senegalese farmer from the coastal region of Palmarin, about 140 kilometres south of the capital, Dakkar.
Floods, rising sea levels and coastal erosion have led to a rapid loss of agricultural land in the region and also affected local fishing communities who no longer have docks or access to the sea.
Food insecurity is already a major problem in Senegal, affecting 15% of rural households and 8% of urban households, but Mainouna said it’s “an even bigger problem” for her community. “If we can’t fish, if we can’t cultivate crops, we have nothing to sell and then we can’t buy anything. It affects not just children, women, old people but everyone.”
She has set up local initiatives to build resilience against climate change and campaigned for infrastructure to protect against flooding, but every year the floods are worse, costing land, homes and lives. “My own house is by the sea, so I have to accept that one day I’m going to lose it,” she added.
People have no choice but to wade through the floodwater to get to work or school. It’s dirty and polluted, causing boils and rashes. She shows me a video of a collapsed bridge and children struggling through water with their bags on their heads. Children are killed most often, Mainouna said, because they don’t have the strength to fight the floods.
Water scarcity is another problem, leading to the loss of livestock and farmers’ livelihoods. “On top of animals being killed by the floods, there is also a massive problem with drought,” she said. “The animals have nothing to eat, so they’re dying from malnutrition and dehydration.”
This “two-pronged issue”, Mainounia said, is having a massive impact on the community’s economic and cultural life.
As Africans, we emit less fossil fuels, we contribute less to climate change, but we are the most affected
She wants to see genuine financial support from the Global North: “As Africans, we emit less fossil fuels, we contribute less to climate change, but we are the most affected. We are the first ones witnessing these changes.
“Justice for us is seeing that the countries that contribute the most to climate change actually start engaging with us and addressing the consequences of their actions. We want to see that the North supports us in the South.”
Muhammed Arif Goheer, agricultural scientist, Pakistan
The need for action is also clear in Pakistan, where recent flooding devastated a third of the country. Despite being one of the world’s lowest carbon emitters, Pakistan is one of the top ten nations most vulnerable to extreme climate events. It was also ranked 99th out of 121 countries on the 2022 Global Hunger Index.
Above the Pakistan Pavilion at COP27, a placard reads: “What goes on in Pakistan won’t stay with Pakistan.” Under this sign I spoke to Muhammed Arif Goheer, head of agriculture for the Pakistan government’s climate change research centre.Agriculture in Pakistan, he says, is currently being hit very hard by climate change. He described extended winters that jump into summer with no signs of spring. Temperatures regularly exceed 45-47ºC – far above the threshold at which wheat can be grown and has led, he says, to a 10-15% reduction in production in the last year.
“Food security is determined by the availability of grains – wheat, rice and maize,” Muhammed said. “If you look at the 2018 National Nutrition Survey of Pakistan, around 38% of people are already food insecure, out of which 18% have chronic food insecurity.”
The long-term impact of food shortages on children’s health are clearly visible in the country: 40% of children under five are stunted and almost 18% suffer from wasting.
Three meals a day, Muhammed said, is not a reality for many in Pakistan, especially the 33 million people who have been displaced by the recent floods. Four million acres of crops were washed away, and farmers are struggling to replant due to lingering floodwater.
The Big Q is working with Ngā Ara Whetū to bring you research and news on climate, biodiversity, and society from an Aotearoa, New Zealand perspective.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.
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