Climate Change in Africa

1. Overview

Africa, the second largest continent, has a wide range of climates that range from the hyper- arid to the very humid. The continent vulnerability to climate change largely depends on its current and future adaptive capacities, which is influenced a lot by factors such as the level of economic development, education, access to credit and adoption of technology. It is therefore difficult to have a uniform assessment of the impacts of climate on the continent. The impact of climate change in hence normally assessed at sub-regional and national levels where relevant data exist.

2.Current Climate

Africa has a highly variable and unpredictable climate that is not fully understood by climatologists. However, observational records show that Africa has been warming through the 20th century at the rate of about 0.05°C per decade with slightly larger warming in the June-November   seasons   than   in   December-May.  The   most   significant   climatic   change   that has occurred in Africa has been a long-term reduction in rainfall in the semi-arid regions of West Africa. For example, in the Sahel there has been on average a 25% decrease in rainfall over the past 30 years – characterized   by   a   decrease   in   the   number   of   rainfall   events.   This reduction has been much more moderate in regions other than the Sahel.

3.      Existing Non-Climate Vulnerabilities

Africa’s vulnerability to climate change is not only due to climate   change itself, but a   combination   of social, economic   and   other environmental factors. It   is   the   interaction   of   all   these multiple   stressors with climate change that   makes the region the   most   vulnerable. These vulnerabilities   include   the   region’s   high   population   growth   rate, pervasive and growing poverty, high prevalence of malnutrition, low literacy rates, a high burden   of   disease,   prevalence   of   environmental   disasters   such   as   floods   and   droughts amongst the others. Furthermore, the   region is also   characterized   by   poor governance, corruption, conflicts and weak institutions.

4.      Vulnerability to Past and Current   Climate changes

4.1    Climate variability:

Africa’s climate is highly variable. This variability is manifested through climate extremes such as droughts and floods, both of which are products of extreme rainfall events. Droughts and floods have increased in frequency and severity over the past 30 years. Droughts have largely occurred in the Sahel and in some parts of Southern Africa. During the Sahelian drought of the early 1970s, about 300 000 people and millions of animals died.

Recurrent droughts are becoming very common in several parts of the continent, with its impacts on the existing population increasing exponentially. Floods have also caused a   lot of havoc particularly in southern    and    eastern   Africa    around   the   coasts   of   the   Indian   Ocean.   Mozambique for instance,   is one of   the   poorest   countries   in   the   continent that is   highly   vulnerable   to disasters   caused   by   climatic   irregularities.      In   recent   years the country has   witnessed frequent   floods   and cyclones, with severe negative    impact    on    the country’s     economic and   social development. In 2000 floods in Mozambique resulted in 2 million people being displaced, about 350,000 jobs lost and the livelihoods of up to 1.5 million people affected.

4.2    Water:

Over   300   Million   people   in   Africa   do   not   have   reasonable   access   to   safe   drinking water and adequate sanitation. The water access   is worse in rural   areas   where    about   47% are covered in comparison to about 85% in the urban areas. In terms of run-off and its effects on river   flow regimes,   there are sub-regional variations with the largest   increases   being found   in   the eastern areas of South Africa and Tanzania, south west Angola, northern Zambia and eastern Tanzania.      The    largest    decreases    of   runoff    are found     in the   wetter   northern     regions    of Southern Africa. Such declines in river flows have negative consequences on livelihoods, agriculture, fisheries and energy production.

4.3    Health:  

Africa has a heavy   disease   burden   largely   caused   by   vector-borne diseases that are influenced by climatic elements. About 90% of all malaria cases occur in Africa. More than   110   million   people   in   Africa   live   in   regions   prone   to   malaria   epidemics,   with   the   most vulnerable      populations      located    in   the fringes    of   the current    infected    areas.    Malaria     is responsible for about 91% of all mortalities in Africa. With changes in climate, there is already significant    increase    in the occurrence of the disease, particularly in areas that did not have previous incidences of malaria, such as the east African highlands. Coupled with the high economic costs of treating the disease, it   is   expected   that   an   increase   in   malaria incidence and prevalence could lead to increase in poverty. Other notable climate-related diseases with similar trend in the region include meningitis and cholera.

4.4    Agriculture and Food Security: 

Agriculture   accounts   for   20-40%   of   GDP   in   Africa.   Even without   climate   change,   there   are   serious   concerns   about   agriculture   because   of water     supply     variability,   soil   degradation,      and   recurring     drought    events.    A number of countries face semi-arid conditions that make agriculture challenging. African agriculture has the   slowest   record   of   productivity   increase   in   the   world,   and   the   lowest   share   of   irrigated cropland. A   significant   fraction   of   cropland resides in the driest regions,    with   39%    of the   irrigation considered unsustainable.  Sub-Saharan Africa is notably, the world’s only major region where food output per capita has been stagnant since 1980. One key factor of this stagnation is the declining availability of arable land per capita, which has shrunk dramatically from 0.38 to 0.25 hectare over the past twenty years, mainly because of population growth.

4.5    Environmental Conflicts and Migration:

Africa is home to several resource scarcity-induced conflicts.    These     conflicts   range from high   intensity    civil wars    to   skirmishes between   livelihood   groups,   as   often   occurs   between   the   pastoralists   and   sedentary farmers.   Of   all   the   climatic   elements,   precipitation   is   known   to   be   the   major   factor that influences   onset   of   conflicts.  Several instances   of   climate   related   conflicts   in   sub-Saharan Africa have been noted. With the projected decline of precipitation and hence biodiversity, most regions in the continent might witness an increase in these scarcity-induced conflicts.

5.      Projected Future Impacts

Climate   change   models   and   scenarios:        

Although the   exact   nature   of changes in temperature, precipitation, and extreme events is not known, there is consensus in literature about the following general trends: (i) the global mean surface temperature is projected to increase between 1.5 °C and 6 °C by 2100 (ii) the sea levels are projected to rise by 15 to 95 centimeters (6 to 37 inches) by 2100 resulting in flooding and salt-water intrusion. African   countries   will thus experience   hotter   and   drier   conditions,   with the warming being greatest   over   the   interior   of   semi-arid margins of the Sahara and central Southern Africa.

The projected warming is somewhat, likely to be larger than the global, annual mean warming       throughout      the   continent     and   in   all seasons. The drier   subtropical     regions (especially arid zones) are projected to warm more than the moister tropical parts. The annual rainfall is also likely to   decrease   in a majority of the northern Africa   and   northern   Sahara,   while   winter   rainfall   will   very likely decrease in much of Southern Africa. In East   Africa,   the frequency of extremely wet seasons is projected to range between 9% and 24% in JJA and DJF respectively. Projections for West Africa are somewhat similar. In South Africa, a 20% increase in the frequency of extremely dry austral winter and springs is probable.

6.      Socio-Economic Scenarios:

Understanding the future impacts of climate change requires recognition of the future socio-economic situations of the existing systems. It is the interaction of climate and socio-economic conditions (usually population and GDP) that produces the final impacts. By   2030   the   population   growth   rate   of   sub-Saharan   Africa   will   be   growing   at   2.1 percent. It is already estimated that the population of Africa will exceed 1 billion by 2010, and eventually stabilize after 2100 at about 2.85 billion, which is three and a half times today’s population.

In sub-Saharan Africa, incomes are expected to grow very slowly and the numbers living in poverty is expected to rise from 240 million in 1990 to 345 million in 2015. By then, 40% of the region will be living in abject poverty. By 2030, all regions except sub-Saharan Africa   is projected to witness decline   of   undernourishment   to   between   4% and   6%, down   from   between 9%   and 24% witnessed today.   In   sub-Saharan   Africa,   15%   of   the population or 183 million people will still be undernourished by 2030.


The impact of climate change in Africa (2010). Institute for Security Studies, South Africa. Available at:

Nkomo J. C., Nyong A. O., Kulindwa K. (2006). The Impacts of Climate Change in Africa. In: The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Available at:

Glossaries with climate change terminologies is available at: