Geographies in Depth

From droughts to loss of glaciers: Here's the state of African climate ahead of COP27

By 2030, high-water stress will have displaced 700 million people in Africa.

By 2030, high-water stress will have displaced 700 million people in Africa. Image: REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS MADAGASCAR DROUGHT" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

Claire Ransom
Assistant Scientific Officer, World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
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COP28

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  • Drought-related hazards in Africa have claimed the lives of over half a million people over the past five decades.
  • Climate change is causing devastation to the continent's water bodies, impacting food security, threatening ecosystems, and impeding socio-economic development.
  • By 2030, high-water stress will have displaced 700 million people in Africa.

We are once again approaching that time of the year. Next week, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life will be swarming the conference centres of Sharm-El-Sheik, all intent on discussing one thing: the climate crisis. COP27 will provide the space for organizations to release reports on their climate-related activities, for countries to negotiate their climate commitments, and for the world to ultimately reach a consensus on how we are to avoid a climate catastrophe.

For many, COP27 will be about understanding and avoiding the future impacts of climate change. More significantly, the conference’s location in Egypt, home to the mighty Nile River, provides an excellent opportunity to draw attention to the enormous challenges the African continent is already facing, particularly regarding water.

Have you read?
  • Global Risks Report 2022

The threat to Africa's water bodies and glaciers

Three of the eleven global water stress hotspots are in Africa. In the past 50 years, drought-related hazards in the region have claimed the lives of over half a million people and caused over $70 billion in losses.

In 2021 alone, more than 3.2 million people in Somalia were affected by the drought plaguing approximately 90% of the country. The ongoing drought in Madagascar, the worst in over 40 years, is causing rivers to dry up and water prices to soar, pushing communities to desperate survival measures. By the end of 2021, 70% of people in southern Madagascar didn’t have access to drinking water, and 50% of the region was in urgent need of water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance.

Drought and changing precipitation patterns are also impacting the continent's most prominent bodies of water. Lake Victoria, for example, is approximately 80% dependent on precipitation and therefore fluctuates significantly during El Niño (wet) or La Niña (dry) years. Others, like Lake Chad, are less dependent on precipitation but have declined significantly, shrinking nearly 90% from the 1960s-1990s. Changes in such lakes have far-reaching consequences - affecting food security, ecosystems, and biodiversity. Worsening water scarcity also has detrimental effects on the socio-economic development of surrounding nations and exacerbates displacement and conflict over dwindling resources.

Declining water levels of Lake Chad in Africa from January 1973 to May 2018
Declining water levels of Lake Chad in Africa from January 1973 to May 2018 Image: United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), based on Landsat images from the United States Geological Survey

Yet droughts are not the only water-related hazard of concern for the region. Two of the three remaining mountains that host glaciers in Africa are on track to becoming fully deglaciated by 2030. The third, the eminent tourist destination of Mt. Kilimanjaro, is expected to be deglaciated by 2040, making it the first region to lose its glaciers because of anthropogenic climate change. Meanwhile, at lower altitudes, the African continent’s sea level is rising faster than the global rate, increasing the frequency and severity of coastal flooding and erosion and deteriorating freshwater resources.

Consequently, these threats endanger the lives of the millions already living in vulnerable contexts whilst undermining the region’s socio-economic development and hindering progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By 2030, 108-116 million people in Africa will be exposed to sea level rise, 700 million will be displaced because of high-water stress, and four out of five African countries are unlikely to have sustainably managed water resources.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Addressing Africa’s water vulnerability

COP27 provides the ideal space to highlight the disparities of climate change experiences worldwide and to set key priorities for action accordingly. This includes implementing early warning systems, filling capacity gaps, and improving access to finance.

Early warning systems are a fundamental component of disaster risk reduction and an excellent financial investment. United in Science finds that, on average, every $1 invested in early warning systems results in approximately $9 in economic benefits. Even so, 60% of people in the region lack the early warning system coverage to cope with extreme weather and climate change. Additionally, despite the already evident impacts of droughts and floods, only 20% of countries (for which sufficient data were available) provide comprehensive drought forecasting or warning services.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

To improve the implementation of warning systems and water resource management, it is critical for the capacity gaps in data collection for basic hydrological variables to be filled. Not only does the data underpin early warning systems and climate services, but is essential to Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) - a key component of SDG 6. According to the IWRM data portal, more than 50% of African countries for which data are available have inadequate capacity to implement elements effectively. Filling these gaps, however, will require ample resources.

Improving access to finance

Improving access to finance and existing finance flows is critical to improving early warning system coverage, filling capacity gaps, and furthering climate action across the continent. Of the 53 Parties in the region who have submitted a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, approximately 80% have identified a need for financial support from the international community. This need is becoming increasingly urgent, particularly as studies have found that existing financial mechanisms may not be reaching those who are most bereft.

You don’t have to attend COP27 to join the dialogue. The warning of water worries across Africa is just one example of how climate change is affecting people on the ground. If you’re interested in learning more about how the climate is changing in your region, view the World Meteorological Organization’s State of the Climate reports, available in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Southwest Pacific.

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