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Zambia is ready to lead on the climate crisis. Will Africa follow?


John Msimuko is the director-general of the Zambian Environmental Management Agency (Zema).

In our beloved, land-locked nation of Zambia, the government has demonstrated encouraging foresight and pragmatism in guiding the country’s efforts to mitigate the causes of the climate crisis and, more relevant to low-emitting African states such as Zambia, adapt to the hazards it brings.

Although some of the world’s most powerful political figures are liable to deny it, we in Africa are living with the consequences of climate change every day in new ways. The impact is inescapable. Indeed, over the last several years, the 1.2 billion people living on our proud continent – the second largest population in the world – have suffered significantly the adverse effects of historic droughts, floods, storms and other severe weather events made ever more common by the warming of our planet.

The world’s climate scientists, economists, development specialists, urban planners, engineers and any number of other experts among society’s public, private and academic spheres agree that these unnatural weather patterns are, more likely than not, destined to become the norm in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

Their conclusion? Governments of the world must re-evaluate their national priorities, and allocate far greater attention and resources to adapting their respective economies to this new normal, a verdict that increasingly appears to be gaining traction.

This at least is the major takeaway from the recent 74th convening of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Here attendees focused nearly exclusively on climate change and how governments of the world can and should mobilise their political and economic resources to take action.

This, of course, is easier said than done. Sub-Saharan Africa needs leadership and international coordination on this issue, and both are in short supply.

The absence of urgency may be related to the fact that we are not the world’s worst polluters. Often discussed in recent years has been the region’s profound vulnerability to the hazards of climate change, despite being responsible for less than 5% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, and less than 2.5% of global cumulative CO2 emissions.

Yet it is we who are suffering. No one will soon forget the “Day Zero” water crisis in Cape Town that came after three years of drought. But the problems are diversifying in scope and range. Average climate change-induced temperature increases in the region are projected to be significantly higher than the global mean. And, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the same can be said for the duration, intensity and frequency of droughts and major storms, such as Cyclone Idai.

To make matters worse, while this alone is cause enough for alarm, sub-Saharan nations’ quickly growing population, insufficient infrastructure, lack of financial resources, institutional instability and over-dependence on industries highly exposed to climate change, such as agriculture and extractives, render the region ill-equipped to make the necessary adaptations.

Yet, against the odds, there are some exceptions.

In our beloved, land-locked nation of Zambia, the current government has demonstrated encouraging foresight and pragmatism in guiding the country’s efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change and, more relevant to low-emitting African states like Zambia, adapt to the hazards it brings.

In an address to the legislature ahead of the UNGA earlier this month, President Edgar Lungu unveiled a sweeping plan for accelerating Zambia’s sustainable development that, among other things, is in line with the administration’s Vision 2030 development agenda, incorporates recommendations from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions, and has earned the approval of numerous civil society organisations, such as the WWF.

The timing could hardly have been more appropriate. The country’s agriculture industry, which contributes 19% of GDP and in 2017 employed 54.8% of the workforce, is facing a challenging period. Drought and weather changes have reduced harvests and strained electricity supply, and although we project a return of heavier rains in the near future, this is a situation we cannot allow to continue without determined action.

It’s understandable then why Lungu, with the support of government leaders from across the Zambian political spectrum, has made climate action one of his administration’s top priorities ahead of the next legislative session. The new climate agenda will build on government measures begun in earnest following a period of similarly adverse weather activity in 2016, particularly the 2017 National Climate Change Policy, which established a two-pronged scheme built on numerous complementary mitigation and adaptation strategies ranging from information dissemination to capacity building at every level of government.

The Zambia Environmental Management Agency (Zema) is among the stakeholders playing a part in helping the country respond to negative impacts of climate change. As the principal environmental regulator, Zema looks to benefit from the political will demonstrated by Lungu to acknowledge environmental management as a critical part of all development initiatives and activities. Climate change is an environmental issue and the path Zambia has taken is the right one.

But Zambia cannot do this alone. For that reason, the Lungu administration will keep its doors open to international investment in its renewable energy sector, working with global partners like the United States, the EU, Italy and Japan to modernise agricultural, water and disaster relief management practices, and will expand other existing engagements with multilateral institutions such as the Climate Investment Fund of the World Bank.

In Zambia, we are bringing together our best and brightest minds to debate the best and most feasible solutions. We are studying improvements that can be made in small-scale farming techniques and irrigation systems. We are looking at an accelerated installation of renewable energy systems, and we are examining food security resilience programmes, among numerous other proactive efforts to guard against the threat of climate change.

It is time for greater regional leadership on the climate change issue. We need strong voices to achieve determined action. If we don’t speak up soon, who will? DM


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