Mahamud, a pastoralist living in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Photo by Kieran Doherty / Oxfam

Mahamud, a pastoralist living in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Photo by Kieran Doherty / Oxfam

Is the impact of climate change on livelihoods a non-emergency?

For the entire history of farmers in most African countries, predictable weather has always been the cornerstone for food security. The rains are often expected at select periods. Based on the period, subsistence farmers, till, plough, and plant which results in a predictable harvest. This pattern has often repeated itself and provided food security. The occurrence of other natural changes in paleoclimate in the early 19th century started the global discussions on climate change and most recently, climate emergency, which the human race is losing, yet we can win if we stand in solidarity for climate action with people who need it the most.

Subsistence farmers who did not participate in the intellectual debate, felt the delay in rains, were affected by floods, new pests and generally realised reduced food security. As the 70s progressed, the scientific opinion started strongly favouring what farmers were progressively experiencing. The opinion increasingly warned of the possibility of global warming, with effects on weather patterns. To date, there are still fringe academic discussions on the causes of climate change. While the heated arguments on causes of climate change may not matter much to a farmer who is struggling to cope with weather changes, this does not remove from the general consensus that climate change is affecting livelihoods, particularly of poor and vulnerable people.

Many governments still perceive climate change impacts as humanitarian emergencies. Climate change-induced floods, food shortages, pest infestations are often responded to as stand-alone humanitarian interventions. Yet, there is a sense that these humanitarian emergencies have become the norm. The food shortages in the Horn of Africa (HoA) are as predictable as floods in other parts of the region. Over 100 million Africans were facing crisis, emergency, or catastrophic levels of food insecurity in 2020 (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification 3 and above)—an increase of more than 60 percent from the previous year. An emergency, by definition, is a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action. Often, climate change effects in the region are serious and require immediate action. In Somalia, since the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, which led to a prolonged period of civil unrest, Somalia has been in a near-constant state of food insecurity. The likelihood that there will be food shortages or extreme wetness and drought in HoA is a certainty if there is no pre-emptive intervention. Climate-related disasters are the norm as they are predictable and expected. The historical stable weather that farmers used to predict their seasonal agricultural calendar is the aberration. A reflection of the effects of climate change on poorer people includes the following:

  • The effects of climate change will vary across geographical regions. However, the global south is bearing the brunt of the human cost of the disaster. There is a real risk that climate change will worsen food security and exacerbate hunger in the HoA.
  • Climate change is likely to affect all aspects of livelihoods from water and sanitation to health, food security and resource-based conflicts. This may require that it is dealt with from a multidisciplinary point of view to include all aspects of poverty reduction and resilience building for poor and vulnerable groups.
  • Women are likely to suffer the brunt of climate change impact on food security. The gender-based inequities are likely to deepen due to climate change effects on livelihoods as naturing roles to provide food, water, and health are likely to be impacted.
  • A charitable approach to dealing with the impact of climate change may deepen inequities. Current discussions on climate change can exclude poor and marginalised people, poorer countries and may even have age and gender discrimination in terms of participation. People who are affected by climate change must be at the table of decision making for meaningful adaptation plans to be realised. They need to sit in the boardroom contributing to decisions that impact their lives.

As we mark the 2021, World Humanitarian Day, it is important to note that time is already running out for millions of the world’s most vulnerable people – those who have contributed least to the global climate emergency but are hit the hardest. Millions of people are already losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their lives. The location of climate change interventions within the humanitarian response continuum needs to be gradually replaced with pre-emptive interventions. The following need to be given priority in dealing with climate-induced livelihood insecurity.

  • Investment in shock responsive social protection systems and other developmental interventions to build resilience.
  • Incrementally shift policies that link all aspects of livelihoods, particularly of poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups, to mainstream the effects of climate change.
  • Recognise the deferential impact of climate change along with the age, gender and disability continuum and develop interventions that consider these differences.
  • Ensure that in global discussions on climate change there is as much investment in adaptation as there is in mitigation.
  • Develop better capacities for African governments to negotiate in climate change policy discussions.

Oxfam recognises that we are in a climate crisis that is wreaking havoc across the globe and it's the poorest communities and women and girls are paying the heaviest price. Climate change is hitting women and girls hardest and forcing people to move creating climate refugees.

As a strategic response to the climate emergency, Oxfam is undertaking the following interventions to tackle climate change:

  • Campaigning for climate action and working with partners to bring the voices of communities affected by climate change into international negotiations and discussions, to ensure global temperature increases are kept below 1.5C and that people living in developing countries are supported to adapt.
  • Working with local communities to build resilience in the face of the climate crisis. For example, in northern Ethiopia where droughts are more frequent and severe, Oxfam with our partners has introduced with our partners a micro insurance scheme for small-holder farmers. In South Africa, we have installed solar panels in schools to demonstrate to the government how off-grid solutions reduce emissions and electricity costs.
  • Responding to climate related emergencies around the globe. In the last year alone, with our partners Oxfam provided humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of people caught up in deadly floods, storms, and droughts. For example, following Cyclone Idai, which left more than 2 million people in urgent need of humanitarian aid, we helped deliver clean water, sanitation, and hygiene kits to over 500,000 people.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Oxfam.