Adapting to climate change while combatting COVID-19 in East Africa

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A herder navigating a flooded river bed in Olkiramatian village in Kajiado County of Kenya. A complex set of challenges ranging from droughts to flash floods and resultant health challenges, to restricted migration due to deteriorating diplomatic relations between Kenya and Tanzania is affecting their capacity to adapt to climate change. CREDIT: Rights and Resilience Project
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The race to contain the COVID-19 pandemic comes against the backdrop of the worldwide need to adapt to climate change, which remains one of the biggest threats to humanity today. Like other regions of the world, climate change is best indicated in East Africa by the relentless rise in earth surface temperature. Scientific models indicate that with a projected average temperature increase of 2°C by 2050, Africa is warming faster than the rest of the world.

A temperature rise of this magnitude would, of course, be catastrophic and would potentially aggravate the already adverse impacts of global climate change, which are manifested in this region by increasing severity of droughts, rainfall variability and flash floods particularly in the arid and semi-arid regions (ASALs), (re)emergence of endemic diseases, and disruption of ecosystems, among others.

It is therefore important to ask whether the EA region can contain the spread of COVID-19 pandemic while adapting to climate change. In the East Africa region, successful containment of COVID-19 pandemic and its adverse impacts demand mobilization of enormous regional resources and intellectual enterprise, which presents a window of opportunity for East African countries to adapt to climate change at the same time.  

Climate change adaptation is a social justice issue

It is widely recognized that more than ever before, humans need to adapt to face an increasingly uncertain future due to the adverse impacts of climate change. This needs to happen even as states reduce the emission of the hazardous greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. In theory, climate change adaptation involves adjustments undertaken by people and ecological systems to reduce their susceptibility to adverse impacts of climate change.

While this understanding appears to present a straight-forward undertaking, climate change adaptation is a complex political process that requires redistribution of resources in ways that empower people, especially the poor and marginalized to reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related risks. Experience shows, however, that these processes are often neglected for political expediency.

Climate change adaptation is, therefore, a social justice issue because the marginalized – be it in the arid and semi-arid northern Kenya, lower-income neighbourhoods of New York or the Vanuatu archipelago – suffer the most from adverse impacts of climate change. This is paradoxical because the poor often contribute the least to the emission of greenhouse gases that are responsible for global warming. These facts imply that climate change adaptation should be made part and parcel of (pro-poor) development endeavours rather than be directed to a climate “out there”.  

Opportunities to adapt while containing COVID-19

A functional health system is the first line of defence against health disasters such as COVID-19. In East Africa, the health systems are generally under-resourced and have poor capacity to deal with emergencies. In Kenya for instance, out of the 64,181 hospital beds across all hospitals, only 37,216 (58%) are in facilities that can offer oxygen supply. Yet, it is estimated that 90 per cent of the facilities with oxygen do not have reticulation systems to the emergency divisions. Climate change poses a further threat to the system, as scientists have for instance linked the phenomenon to the local resurgence of malaria and cholera, – diseases that are endemic to the East Africa region. The surge in demand for medical services resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic is thus putting pressure on a system already strained by adverse impacts of climate change.

Significant resources and intellectual mobilization has gone into the management of COVID-19 since its outbreak. These include recruitment of additional health service providers, stockpiling of critical medical supplies and equipment, public health messaging and capacity building for citizens and students on public health and improved access to basic sanitation services. Yet, the extent to which the initiatives have been embedded into short-term to long term development plans is debatable. To adapt to climate change while addressing COVID-19, these initiatives would need to be institutionalized to not only support the East African states to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 but act as a bulwark against other pandemics and endemic diseases now and in the future.

Impacts of climate change are non-respecters of regional boundaries, just as it is the case with pandemics. A regional approach to managing such crises is therefore imperative. Failure to approach the problem from a regional perspective may result in duplication of efforts, wastage of resources and erosion of gains made by progressive nations due to the interdependence and interconnectedness that comes with globalization. Indeed, the establishment of the EAC was in part driven by the realization that regional challenges require a trans-boundary approach to address common threats.

By formulating the East Africa COVID-19 Response Plan and the establishing the EAC Regional Health Sector Novel Coronavirus Emergency Plan, EAC member states – or at least the secretariat – recognize this logic. Yet, it is in the public domain that measures eventually implemented by the Community are neither homogeneous nor uniformly applied. This raises fundamental questions on just how “community” the East Africa Community is, as member states have instituted varied measures and adopted different strategies to combat the pandemic.

While some states have implemented measures that emphasize the catastrophic nature of the pandemic, others have discounted the impacts or existence of COVID-19. Kenya and Tanzania for instance instituted and implemented conflicting measures that have resulted in strained diplomatic relations. Besides, Tanzania has not shared its COVID-19 related data consistently, ultimately stopping reporting the disease’s incidence in April 2020. This situation hinders an adequate understanding of the pandemic’s trends in the EAC region.  This is problematic not just concerning current containment of COVID-19, but also to future efforts aimed at establishing and learning from possible direct relationships between COVID-19 and climate-related anomalies, which is possible to determine through long-term epidemiological and weather trends. This is how scientists have, for instance, established linkages between the virulence of Spanish flu and a climate anomaly in Europe.

To improve the sense of “community” envisioned by the EAC protocol, diplomatic relations between EAC member states need to be re-examined and improved to deal with regional commons. A fallout such as was witnessed between Tanzania and Kenya due to differing approaches to the containment of COVID-19 may spiral to affect cooperation in other critical regional challenges for which climate change is central. In this regard, there is a lot to learn from the recent remarks by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the state of the planet, which emphasizes the need for truly global coalitions if the world is to prevent catastrophic climate change. Such coalitions have been vital to the formulation and adoption of the Paris agreement, the world’s framework for combating climate change which the EAC countries need to support at country and regional level if citizens of the region are to benefit from its ambitious goals.

Facing the future

COVID-19 pandemic is still evolving and a lot remains unknown about the pandemic globally. Lack of complete data notwithstanding, the East Africa region appears to have escaped the mass morbidity and mortality projected at the onset of the pandemic. Yet, the region has experienced unprecedented, adverse socio-economic impacts as a result of the pandemic. These impacts occur in the background of and have been exacerbated by global climate change.

As with the impacts of climate change, the marginalized are most affected often due to political decisions that do not prioritize their needs. But COVID-19 demands rapid and decisive action to mitigate further losses of lives and resuscitate the collapsing economic wellbeing of millions of people. Given the inherent urgency of containing COVID-19, the pandemic is, therefore, a window of opportunity to adapt to climate change. Institutionalization of rapid response measures and improved regional cooperation would, for instance, go a long way not just in containing COVID-19 but also building the region’s capacity to deal with adverse impacts of climate change.

Jackson Wachira is a PhD student at the Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation, University of Nairobi.

Dr Shazia Chaudhry is a Lecturer at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi.

They write in their own capacities. The authors may be reached through j.wachira@outlook.com/ j.wachira@students.uonbi.ac.ke and shazia@uonbi.ac.ke respectively.  

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