'Disaster for the whole earth' ahead without climate action - Sudan negotiator

by Hannah McNeish | @HannahMcNeish | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 March 2017 12:52 GMT

In this 2009 file photo, a Sudanese farmer prepares his land for irrigation on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallh

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Both poor - and rich - countries face hard times ahead without swift action on climate change, Sudan climate negotiator says

By Hannah McNeish

KHARTOUM, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As a boy growing up in 1950s Sudan, Ismail El Ghizouli would listen to his grandfather talk about Khartoum having sent surplus food to rebuild post-war Europe and to Saudi Arabia, before the oil.

In Sudan's fields, the rains came like clockwork. Schools opened the first week of July, when the first shower arrived. Farmers gave each rainy spell in the 13-day rainy cycle its own name.

"In the good old days, Sudan was good," says El Ghizouli, now a top climate change negotiator for Sudan and other less-developed countries.

"In the past, the farmer could plan for the season, because of the rain," he said. "Now, nobody can tell. You see there is disruption and variability of the rain."

As the frequency of climatic shocks such as drought and floods increases in Sudan, hunger has become a serious problem in a country where 70 percent of the population relies on farming. Today Sudan ranks in the bottom 15 of 113 countries on the Global Hunger Index.

And worse is ahead – not just for Sudan, but also for richer countries – if too little is done to stop climate change, he El Ghizouli said.

"We have to move now, especially the emitters. If they don't do that, it will be a disaster for the whole earth. No one knows when and where it will happen," he said.

‘A FUNERAL A WEEK'

Sudan's problems began in the 1980s, when intense droughts and soaring temperatures in southern Sudan and Ethiopia killed cattle and people and led to the loss of trees, El Ghizouli said.

He started staying late at work to research why biblical weather and hunger were replacing his childhood memories of dependable rains and a land of plenty.

Others were seeing the same problems. In the small desert village of Altiraifia in North Kordofan state, Dar-es-Salaam Omer remembers watching the crops wither, the trees shrivel and her children shrink instead of grow.

"You could only see this red sand and dead animals and people losing weight and getting tired. And we couldn't find anything to feed our kids or money to bring things from outside," she said.

There was a funeral a week in the village, as the money sent back by men who had migrated to find other work often came too late, or was too little. Those buried were mostly children, including Omer's own baby and twin toddlers.

"They passed away at home, one year apart and I blamed myself so much", she said.

Despite temperatures that made most people lie down all day, she carried her sick children two hours through the desert to the doctor. But no medicines could undo the damage done by hunger.

"We would give them whatever we had to eat and tell them, ‘Everybody is waiting, waiting for the rain,'" she said.

As temperatures inch up in Sudan – and around the world – people like Omer fear such deadly weather could now come more often.

RISING EMISSIONS

El Ghizouli said he started warning Western leaders in the 1990s that global warming in the form of extreme weather would hit them one day too.

"I said in Africa we are dying with malnutrition, we are dying with malaria and a lot of things," he said. "So if you add another factor it will not affect us like you, so you have to take care of this issue."

But emissions and temperatures have continued to rise, worsening climate impacts – and richer countries that produced most of the problem emissions are not doing enough to help poorer countries cope, he said.

Emissions from Sudan – one of Africa's geographically largest countries – account for only 0.7 percent of total world emissions, he said. But Sudan has received little funding to help deal with problems such as spreading desertification, El Ghizouli said.

Data gathered in Sudan show that temperatures between 2000 and 2009 were between 0.8 degrees Celsius and 1.6 degrees Celsius warmer than they were from 1960 to 1969, while rainfall has reduced and become erratic.

"Sometimes there comes a very, very strong rain, sometimes even over 500 ml, and people think it will be a very good season and start planting, and then there's no rain," he said.

Increasingly such problems are being seen in richer countries as well, he said. Southern Europe has seen unseasonably hot and long summers, and Russia stronger fires.

"People are started to realise physically that something is happening," he said.

To deal with the problem, rich countries need to take the lead in reducing their consumption to try to hold the line on climate change, he said.

"If in America each one has a car, what they consume in a day we consume in one year," he said.

If the same level of emissions continues, if green energy does not replace fossil fuels and if the consumerist Western lifestyle keeps spreading, the world has 25 years before the atmosphere becomes saturated with gases and nothing can be done to save it, he predicted.

"Twenty-five years is, I give you, the upper limit. Maybe less, according to science," he said.

"If people reduce their lives it is better than losing their lives," he added. "If you compare that you're going to lose your life or reduce your luxury, which one is better? To reduce your life or reduce your luxury?"

(Reporting by Hannah McNeish @lauriegoering; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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