Climate Change and the Global South: The Case of Africa

Should climate change continue unaddressed, it is estimated that of the additional 30–170 million people who are likely to suffer from malnutrition or under-nutrition globally in the coming years, three-quarters will be in Africa.

A man looks at a washed away bridge  following Cyclone Idai in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, March 18, 2019. Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

The unprecedented impact of climate change is already being felt across the world and is disproportionately burdening developing countries of the Global South. Due to their high levels of vulnerability, low adaptive capacity, and widespread poverty, these countries are particularly vulnerable and exposed to extreme climate events such as droughts, floods, storms, and cyclones. These extreme climate events  are nowhere more pronounced than in Africa.  Understanding  the consequences of  these extreme climate events  is vital  in shaping  current and future measures that the continent  needs to consider.

Based on scientific evidence, 97 percent of climate experts agree that climate change is occurring in response to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs), largely as the result of human activities. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) noted that the highest average global temperatures on record were observed from 2014 to 2020, with 2020 (1.25°C higher than pre-industrial levels) and 2016 (1.1°C higher than pre-industrial levels) hitting the record for the single hottest years. This warming trend is expected to continue long-term, resulting in catastrophic change, unless global action is taken to limit the increase.  

Observed Changes in Africa’s Climate 

Climate change is defined as a long-term shift in global or regional climate patterns but most often refers to the rise in global temperatures due to human-produced GHGs from the mid-twentieth century to the present. 

Despite contributing the least to these GHGs globally, African countries bear a greater burden from the impact of climate change. Observed consequences are directly linked to temperature and precipitation, which are recognized as the two main indicators that characterize the state of Africa’s climate. 

Evidence presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals that in recent decades, Africa’s temperatures have been rising, with an increase in heatwaves and hot days. Rainfall patterns have been changing, with decreases and increases in precipitation observed in various parts of Africa. The observed changes in climate have resulted in rising sea levels, melting of mountain glaciers, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme climate events such as floods and droughts. Consequences of a changing climate have had devastating impacts on Africa’s key sectors, including agriculture, water, health, biodiversity, settlements, and infrastructure, in turn affecting human health and safety, food and water security, livelihoods, socioeconomic development, and the overall security of people. 

Existing challenges such as complex governance and institutional dimensions, widespread poverty, limited access to capital, infrastructure, and technology, complex disasters and conflicts, and ecosystem degradation heighten the continent’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Highlighted below are examples of how extreme climate events have affected African countries. 


Droughts occur due to too little rainfall or too much evaporation, causing serious hydrological imbalances. Between 2011 and 2020 severe droughts were experienced across the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and Southern Africa. A severe drought, reported to be the worst in sixty years, affected the entire East Africa region between July 2011 and mid-2012. The drought resulted in a severe food crisis across Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya and disrupted the livelihood of 9.5 million people. Many fled southern Somalia and moved to bordering countries, namely Kenya and Ethiopia, and into overcrowded refugee camps. Due to unsanitary conditions and severe malnutrition, a large number of people died. Other East African countries, such as South Sudan and Uganda, were also affected by the food crisis.

Following a prolonged period of dryness from 2014 to 2016, several African countries were again struck by an extensive drought in 2019. These countries included Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Tanzania. The Southern Africa region, however, was the most severely affected. 

The drought impacted the water and agricultural sectors, resulting in a serious decline in food and water security in the region. At the time, in January 2020, the World Food Programme reported that 45 million people in Southern Africa were food insecure due to the prolonged drought. Livestock farmers lost their livestock to starvation and early culling of herds driven by shortages of water and feed. 

Other reported impacts included daily power outages, which affected 17 million people in southern Africa as the Kariba Dam, which supplies about half of Zambia and Zimbabwe’s electricity needs, was down to between 10 and 20 percent of capacity. The Gove Dam’s hydropower supply was reduced to half its normal capacity, affecting two million people in the Angolan cities of Huambo, Kuito, and Caala. 


Following the 2019 drought until late 2020, the Greater Horn of Africa region experienced a dramatic shift in climatic conditions, with several countries in the region receiving at least double their average seasonal rainfall, resulting in floods and landslides. Affected countries included: Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Central African Republic, Togo, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and South Africa. 

Several lakes and rivers were said to have reached record high levels, including Lake Victoria, the Niger River, the Congo River, and the Blue Nile. Before the Southern Africa region could recover from the widespread drought, the region was hit with floods. 

Several countries reported loss of life or significant population displacement due to the floods. Indirect impacts from diseases were also reported. At least 285 deaths were reported in Kenya; 155 deaths and over 8 thousand people affected in Sudan; 28 thousand people displaced in the Central African Republic; and at least seventy deaths in South Africa. In Niger, 557,800 people were affected, with sixty-six deaths from house collapses, fourteen deaths from drowning, and one hundred injuries. In addition, 51,560 houses and huts were destroyed. Sudan recorded damage to 69 thousand homes. 

Cyclones and Storms 

Continued warming of the Indian Ocean is expected to increase the frequency of intense tropical cyclones. The 2019 and 2020 WMO reports on the state of the climate in Africa, provide an account of how cyclones and storms affected the continent during these years. The 2018-19 Southwest Indian Ocean cyclone season was the most active and deadliest cyclone season recorded since documentation began in 1967. It set a record of nine intense tropical cyclones, most of which were experienced in Madagascar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Comoros, Malawi, and Somalia—countries particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones from the Indian Ocean. In January 2019, Mozambique experienced a cyclone which reached the country as a tropical storm, a more severe classification. It caused flooding in central Mozambique, which displaced around 120 thousand people. Then, in March 2019, Cyclone Idai, one of the most destructive tropical cyclones ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, devastated Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and caused over 1,200 deaths, destroyed thousands of homes, and impacted almost two million people. Close to 75 thousand pregnant women were left vulnerable due to lack of reproductive health services, sanitation, and clean water. Just a month later, Mozambique was hit by yet another major tropical cyclone in the form of Cyclone Kenneth. Though more intense than Idai, it affected a relatively sparsely populated area and resulted in fifty-three deaths.  

In January 2020,  flooded 134 houses and destroyed fifty-six in Madagascar. A total of eighty-seven schools were damaged and eleven destroyed, and more than one thousand people were directly affected. In November 2020, Cyclone Gati was recorded as the strongest storm to hit Somalia; it affected about 180 thousand people, displaced about 21,360 people, destroyed about 4 thousand properties belonging to nomadic communities, killed 8,450 heads of livestock, and destroyed 120 fishing vessels. Schools, health facilities, and water points were also destroyed or damaged.  

Such devastating climatic events have exposed Africa’s vulnerability and urgent need to reinforce all efforts aimed at combating climate change. Several of Africa’s key economic sectors vital to the livelihoods of millions of people continue to be negatively impacted by climate change.


In Africa, agriculture is central to food security at the regional, national, and household levels and is key to economic development. It also provides the primary source of livelihood for the majority of the continent’s population and contributes substantially to the gross domestic product (GDP) of many African countries. However, because the sector is predominantly dependent on rainfed agriculture, it is highly sensitive, and therefore vulnerable, to variations in temperature and precipitation. 

Extreme weather events such as droughts, heat stress, floods, storms, and cyclones have had a devastating impact on the agricultural sector and, in turn, have adversely affected food security on the continent. Food security exists when all people have uninterrupted physical or economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. It encompasses four key dimensions: food availability (production, supply, stock levels, and net trade), food accessibility (affordability, allocation, and preference), food utilisation (nutritional and societal values and safety) and food stability.

In the wake of the 2018-19 drought period, the agriculture sector suffered reduction in crop yields and crop failure, loss of livestock, and reduced livestock production. This led to a spike in food prices which coincided with income losses in agricultural communities and changes in supply chain infrastructure. Negative effects on all dimensions of food security were noted in several affected African countries, resulting in severe acute food insecurity for the most vulnerable populations. Meanwhile, most countries had not yet recovered from the 2016-17 drought. For example, food security slowly deteriorated in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda due to poor rainy seasons; an estimated 12 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia were severely food insecure. In Southern Africa, records show that 13.8 million people needed food assistance. Additionally, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, suffered the largest year-on-year decrease in cereal production due to insufficient rainfall.

The heavy rains that followed the 2018-19 drought period triggered widespread floods which destroyed the remaining crops that had survived the droughts, killed livestock, and further added to worsening living conditions. For example, Cyclones Idai and Kenneth destroyed an estimated 480 thousand hectares of crops in Mozambique with additional losses experienced in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Extensive flooding in Niger left 9,741 hectares of crops submerged under water. The flooding wiped out crop fields, further exacerbating the already dire food insecurity for millions living in the stricken countries. 

In the 2019 report “State of the Climate in Africa”,the WMO highlights that food insecurity was further worsened by internal displacement of highly vulnerable groups who were forced into displacement camps to gain access to food and livelihood opportunities. For example, pastoralist communities in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia who are dependent on livestock for their livelihoods, were severely hit by recurrent droughts which caused significant livestock losses that plunged them into crisis. This triggered mass migration of pastoralists out of drought-affected areas into displacement camps. In addition to the 4.6 million refugees and asylum seekers already hosted by East Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Great Lakes region, over 7.7 million internally displaced persons migrated to displacement camps. This also raised concern of high-level malnutrition among children aged six to fifty-nine months. 

Based on a 2020 “State of the Climate in Africa” report, with each flood or drought on the continent, food insecurity increases by 5 to 20 percent. In 2020, the population experiencing food insecurity is estimated to have increased by 40 percent compared to 2019. Approximately 98 million people suffered from acute food insecurity and needed food aid. Should changes in climate continue, it is estimated that of the additional 30 to 170 million people who are likely to suffer from malnutrition or under-nutrition globally, three-quarters will be in Africa.

Water Resources 

Continued climate change will affect Africa’s water sector; several countries are already water insecure due to hydrologic variability, poor water management and services, power inequality, uneven distribution, and poverty. In 2019, the World Resource Institute highlighted that across Africa, one in every three people is faced with water scarcity and about 400 million people are denied basic drinking water. Not having access to water threatens life, devastates livelihoods, undermines human dignity, and cripples economic development. 

 Africa’s water resources are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts; this worsens water challenges in countries that are already water insecure and introduces water insecurity in countries that have always enjoyed water security. Observed impacts of climate change on Africa’s water resources include drought, flooding, drying-up of rivers, change in distribution of rainfall, poor water quality in surface and groundwater systems, receding of water bodies, and melting of glaciers. These impacts affect the supply and availability, in both quantity and quality, of water resources to meet the needs of societies, ecosystems, and growing economies. 

 Climate change induced water shortages are already impacting the economies of various African countries, food security on the continent, and the health status of disadvantaged populations. Moreover, changes in freshwater and marine ecosystems have been observed in eastern and southern Africa. For example, a shift in migration patterns, geographic range, and seasonal activity of many terrestrial and marine species has been noted.

Impact on Health

Adequate food, safe water, tolerable temperatures, clean air, a stable climate, and biodiversity are critical factors to sustaining human health. With climate change altering temperature and precipitation, evidence shows that these factors are compromised, resulting in a wide range of health consequences, such as increased prevalence of vector-borne and water-borne diseases, malnutrition, injury, mortality, thermal stress, cardio-respiratory diseases, and other health problems.

Vector-species have different sensitivities to temperature and precipitation with the potential to redistribute themselves to new climate-driven environments, resulting in new diseases. For example, warmer temperatures and higher rainfall have been proven to increase habitat suitability for biting insects and the transmission of vector-borne diseases. This is of particular concern within the African region given the disturbingly high prevalence of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, chikungunya, and schistosomiasis. In 2017, an estimated 93 percent of global malaria deaths occurred in Africa. A forty-year-long Kenyan study revealed that malaria parasite prevalence peaks during periods of abnormally high rainfall accompanied by flooding. 

Waterborne diseases have been associated with floods, which are known to transport bacteria, parasites, and viruses into drinking water systems, causing outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, cryptosporidiosis, rotavirus, and paratyphoid. In 2008 in Mozambique, for example, a cholera outbreak resulted in 70 deaths and several deaths from diarrhoeal diseases were recorded after severe flooding. Then, following Cyclone Idai in 2019, a cholera outbreak was declared in Mozambique with a total of 4,979 cases and 6 confirmed deaths. Floods in Kenya in 2009 resulted in a major cholera outbreak with a record 11,769 cases and 274 deaths. Precipitation- and temperature-induced increases in diarrhoeal cases, led to many deaths in Ghana, Namibia, South Africa, and Ethiopia.

Malnutrition due to impacts of climate change on agriculture and other food systems have been noted across the African continent and are well documented. For example, wasting, stunted growth, and underweight conditions among children was observed in several African countries during the drought period between 2012 and2019. In 2014, it was reported that 238,761 children in Ethiopia were treated for severe and acute malnutrition. In Southern Africa, of the 11 million people across nine countries who experienced a food crisis, half were children. They were said to be at risk of hunger, disease, exploitation, and death. Records show that an estimated 85 thousand children in Angola experienced severe or moderate acute malnutrition.

Other health effects related to high temperatures have been  noted across Africa. These are highlighted in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. For example, heatwaves are said to be increasing death tolls and cases of heat rash in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. In most cases, children are the most affected. It is clear that climate change is undermining health on the African continent. This places a strain on the already vulnerable human support and healthcare systems. 

Africa’s Response to Climate change  

After considering scientific evidence and observing climate change-induced disasters that have had devastating impacts on the African continent, African states adopted a united front on climate change. All African states are signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and acknowledge that they are legally obligated to adopt and implement policies and measures designed to mitigate the effects of climate change as well as adapt to the new climate reality. To honor their obligation, several initiatives to combat climate change have been taken. These encompass the establishment of various institutions, declarations, policies, frameworks, action plans, programs, and projects.   

African parties endorsed the Paris Agreement in 2015 and have submitted their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) as part of the ratification process; NDCs are the main instrument that will direct policy responses to climate change. The Paris Agreement is a historic universal accord adopted by almost every nation to combat climate change and adapt to its impacts. After twenty years of global negotiations between governments of developed and developing nations, this legally binding agreement which jointly addresses climate change was reached. The Paris agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Governments also committed to strengthening the ability to adapt to climate change as well as building resilience. African nations have thus committed to enhancing climate action through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience. The NDC is the main instrument that will direct policy responses to climate change. 

It is well and good that African states are committed to combating climate change. Their commitments are, however, conditional to getting adequate financial, technical, and capacity building support. Without support for Africa’s adaptation and mitigation initiatives, their commitments will remain words on paper. The devastating consequences of climate change will become the norm while most African countries sink deeper into extreme poverty. Life on this planet will slowly diminish.

Africa needs over $3 trillion by 2030 to implement its NDCs. Presently, financing sources such as the Green Climate Fund are still limited. A large variance between pledges and actual contributions has been noted. Mobilization of climate funding is critical for strengthening NDC ambitions. 

In conclusion, Africa recognizes climate change as a major challenge for its development. The continent is already faced with its impacts, which have devastated livelihoods, economies, agriculture, water and food systems, infrastructure investments, public health, and biodiversity and ecosystems. Climate change, therefore, demands urgent, cooperative, and shared responsibility. 

Given the current climate change emergency, it is crucial to direct resources to mitigation and adaptation initiatives. Climate change requires the same kind of commitment and resource mobilization directed at COVID-19, which demonstrated what is possible when there is a will for change. African countries are already faced with a host of challenges. Climate change places additional burdens on the continent’s efforts to tackle existing challenges, therefore significantly hampering development. However, addressing climate change will also create opportunities. The world cannot afford to fail to combat climate change. There is so much at stake, especially for Africa.