This is not just about the weather; this is about people. Many Africans have lost their lives while so many more have lost their homes, farms and businesses. And as we continue to heat the planet, the situation in Africa continues to get worse.”
With this impassioned plea, young African climate activist Vanessa Nakate, who spoke with both passion and conviction, grabbed the attention of the participants at the Rotary virtual convention in June.
Daughter of a Rotarian, who served as president of RC Bugolobi, Kampala, in 2017, and founder of the Rise Up Movement, the young climate activist said that right from that time, watching him work “as the leader of the Rotary Mission Green, a project that saw his and various communities in Uganda planting trees, sowed a seed that made me decide to be a voice of change. His courage and action inspired me to find my voice. To stand up for what I believe is important. And to become an activist.”
Vanessa said that during her childhood she had heard her father and others talk about the rain and how the region’s farmers would always count on the rain to sustain their fields. But things were changing, and over the years, her father’s generation had seen the rains falling less and less frequently and the crops suffering. “But when the rain finally did come, it would fall in great downpour often flooding the fields and destroying the already weakened crops.” The farmers known to her father were losing their farms and livelihoods, and food was becoming more and more scarce.
Rising food prices caused tension between the people and the situation worsened quickly. “I was only 21 years old but I could sense the urgency in his voice. And I knew I needed to find a way to make things better.”
She started to research the change in weather patterns. Hailing from Kampala, Uganda, a country with one of the fastest changing climate patterns, in the world, as Vanessa grew up she read about how the climate crisis was already ravaging vast parts of the African continent. “Which is tragic and ironic when you think about how Africa is the lowest emitter of CO2 emissions among all the continents except Antarctica. Each year the entire continent of Africa emits less than one-third of the CO2 emitted by the US. Historically Africa is responsible for only three per cent of global emissions. And yet Africans are suffering some of the most brutal impacts fuelled by the climate crisis.”
These include rapidly intensifying hurricanes, devastating floods and withering droughts.
Cyclone Idai was one of the worst cyclones to affect the African continent, ripping apart and flooding large parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. “The strong winds and heavy rainfall left over 1,300 people dead, and many more were recorded missing. It also left an economic crisis.”
Last year, said Vanessa, the water of Lake Victoria rose as a result of heavy rainfall in East Africa. Homes were flooded, farms were washed away and people were displaced, toilets were submerged leaving a water crisis. East Africa was invaded by swarms of locusts brought on by heavy rainfall and abnormally warm temperatures. “The locusts ate everything in their path. Crops were devoured, threatening the availability of food for the people. Last September, massive flooding in Sudan killed 100 people and made thousands homeless,” she said. The Nile regularly bursts its borders and farmers rely on the floodwaters to create fertile land. But people living along the Nile “say they have never seen anything like the extent of last year’s flooding.”
Southern parts of Africa have experienced terrible droughts that are leading to food insecurity and water scarcity. The water levels of Zambesi river, Lake Chad and the Victoria falls are lower than they have been for decades. “Lake Chad has shrunk to a tenth of its original size in just 50 years. Over five years of drought in Somalia have left almost half of its population with little to eat and drink. And half of Nigeria has no access to water.”
According to Oxfam, 12 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in dire need of food, she added. But with the rising climate-related disasters, this will only get worse. “The droughts and floods have left nothing behind for the people except pain, agony, suffering, starvation and death. For every one per cent increase in drought there is a 2.4 per cent decrease in agri output, she added.
And yet, Vanessa observed sarcastically, “even as Africa endures a lot of climate-related disasters, you wouldn’t know it from watching the news. Africa’s climate crisis may be on the frontline of the world’s climate disaster, but it is not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. While the media focuses on the wildfires in California or Australia, or flooding in Europe, climate-related catastrophes in Africa receive little attention,” the activist thundered.
She then asked: What is the response from the developed countries about Africa’s social and economic crisis fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels. “Greater and greater investment in the extraction of fossil fuels.” Her clear message to the “countries and banks who fund the digging up and burning of fossil fuels in Africa” was: “We cannot eat coal and drink oil. My father told me you must stand up for what you believe in and think is right and never give in. It is time for our so-called leaders to do the same. They must treat the climate crisis like a crisis. Stop making empty promises and take responsibility. They must show the courage and resilience that my father, all those years ago, showed me was possible. Surely this is what RI means by people of action.”