OPINION: Sound environmental governance key to maximizing potential of Horn of Africa détente

by Inger Andersen | UNEP
Friday, 26 July 2019 12:45 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A farmer works in an irrigated field near the village of Botor, Somaliland April 16, 2016. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The international community must shift far more towards the long-term view, rather than the band aid of emergency support in the face of conflict and natural disasters

Inger Andersen, executive director, UN Environment Programme.

The Horn of Africa today faces increased threats to its people’s security in the form of natural disasters linked to climate change. But as old tensions ease – bringing hope for an end to decades of strife – we have our best chance yet to build climate resilience and address the environmental drivers of conflict in the region.

The credit for this hope, and the responsibility to fulfil it, lies with the people and governments of the Horn, but partners, including the UN, are ready to provide support. In particular, the UN’s new Comprehensive Regional Prevention Strategy for the Horn of Africa foresees a long-term, proactive approach to investing in a healthy environment, rather than throwing resources at emergency response when disaster or conflict strikes.

Addressing the impacts of climate change is an obvious starting point in this approach, and here the Horn of Africa has suffered more than most. The rate of drying in the region during the 20th century was unprecedented in 2,000 years. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report 2018, the number of disasters related to climate change – including droughts, floods and storms – have doubled in the region since 1990.

We can expect these challenges to increase. The long rains of March-May are predicted to decline, while the short rains of September-November may grow in intensity. The region is also predicted to warm faster than the global average. Meanwhile, land degradation – which is down to both climate change and the stripping of forests for fuel wood – is a huge concern. For example, the charcoal trade in Somalia has decimated the country’s Acacia trees.

Together, these phenomena affect livelihoods across the wider region, threatening agriculture, water and energy supplies, and health. They also lead to conflict. Old grazing patterns have been lost, populations have increased, and people displaced by climate change and land degradation – as well as other conflicts – have come into areas traditionally governed by others. We can already see, in some parts of the region, a correlation between water scarcity and spikes of violence.

As climate change worsens and more land degrades, we will see fewer resources to go around. For a region already hit by forced migration, the impacts on population movements, and so tensions between communities and nations, could be alarming.

A healthy environment would greatly mitigate the impact of these problems. And the solutions exist, ready to be put to work through national and transnational efforts in the new spirit of regional cooperation.

We know, for example, that increased tree cover has huge benefits for climate, water regulation and soil health. This has already been done in relatively insecure contexts elsewhere; for example, between 2014 and 2017, Pakistan’s “Billion Tree Tsunami” exceeded its target, restoring 350,000 hectares of degraded land and creating tens of thousands of jobs. Closer to home, forest cover in Ethiopia tripled between 2000 and 2010 thanks to an ambitious reforestation programme. 

Shifting to renewable energy is also vital. The resources are all there, including strong winds, ample sun, and enormous geothermal potential in the African Rift.  By harnessing these renewable sources of energy, the Horn of Africa can leapfrog the fossil fuel-centred development model, and move straight to a green economy. We are seeing progress here. Kenya recently inaugurated the continent’s largest wind farm while Ethiopia has developed a Climate Resilient Green Economic Plan, aiming to become a “green economy front-runner” and achieve middle-income status by 2025.

The recent Africa free trade agreement, if designed to boost trade in renewable energy and clean technologies adapted for and by Africans, can be a game changer. The Horn of Africa Initiative, a regional infrastructure plan created by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, provides another chance to support governments in integrated planning of renewable energy and sustainable transport.

However, nothing moves without good governance, from the local to the transnational. All policies should be geared towards the adaptation and mitigation of climate change. Empowering local communities to participate in the sustainable governance of their natural resources will matter greatly.

In addition, we need to monitor tensions over natural resources, and support governments in addressing them before they escalate. States and communities must also work together to address transboundary issues, particularly over large water bodie

At the strategic support level, the international community must shift far more towards the long-term view, rather than the band aid of emergency support in the face of conflict and natural disasters.

Putting all the pieces into place will take time. There will be setbacks. But the current political climate gives us the best opportunity in decades to invest in a climate-resilient future for the Horn of Africa, which will bring peace, stability and prosperity. We must seize it.