Environmental wars that were once fictional are now reality

. Beyond planting trees, African countries need to develop a comprehensive and integrated approach to conserve its forest [File, Standard]

It is, to rephrase a statement from former US President Bill Clinton, “climate change stupid.” When the first “Mad Max” movie came out in 1979, and “Mad Max 2” followed in 1981, the world they portrayed, of bizarrely tattooed murderous biker gangs, living out brutal lives in desolate environmental ghettoes formed after a societal collapse due to, among other things, a shortage of fuel and water, must have seemed to many like a fertile flight of movie making fancy.

By the time the fourth “Mad Max: Fury Road” came out in 2015, the world had changed. The tattooed gangs were familiar and everywhere, as we have become a heavily tattooed species.

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And the creepy dusty deserts, manic fights over water, a life in lands where there are hardly any trees and no animals, are more recognisable than the lush green of last year’s high-grossing “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”, with muscleman Dwayne Johnson (The Rock). 

For conservationists, it was a good feeling to see a film with pristine nature, even if fictionalised, doing so well. And perhaps even more so, to see in the recent Afrofuturist film “Black Panther,” a tip of the hat to the beauty of nature, when the lovable-villain Killmonger, killed by the good-guy hero T’Challa, makes a dying wish.

Unprecedented action

He asked T’Challa to show him the beauty of “Wakanda” that he dreamed of as a boy. T’Challa obliges, and takes him up to a viewing tower – an unusual ending, but the type a conservationist script writer would have plotted.

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All over the world, we are seeing this change, in which old fiction is current realty, and current fiction is hacking bark to a reality that is gone.

In 2015, in a story that didn’t catch much attention in Africa, was reported from down south. In a scene that would not have been out of place in ‘Mad Max’, Malawi took the unprecedented action of sending soldiers to protect one of its water towers, as Lilongwe faced acute scarcity.

For the longest time, wood charcoal burners had been destroying this forest, the catchment basin for the Lilongwe River, the source of the capital’s water.

This was remarkable, because three decades ago, and still in some parts of Africa, soldiers were deployed to beat back rebels, and anti-government protestors. Now this!

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Recently in Kenya, in what media dubbed a “charcoal war between Kiambu and Kitui counties,” we got a similar taste of the militarisation of the contest over environmental resources.

Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu has been enforcing a charcoal and sand harvesting ban in the county, and some people from the area burnt two vehicles ferrying charcoal from her county.

In turn, youth from Kiambu County blocked the Nairobi-Naivasha highway demanding the arrest of Ms Ngilu. The Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu sued Ngilu, alleging “incitement.” However, other governors in the northeast joined Ngilu in enforcing charcoal bans in their counties.

The Nairobi-Naivasha highway is the main export and import route for the hinterland countries of Uganda and Rwanda, and the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Charcoal, a forest destroyer, is an important fuel source for most people in cities and urban areas in Africa, because they don’t have access to or can’t afford electricity and liquefied petroleum gas. Ideally, universal access to cheap power would ease the problem, but in the drought that swept through many parts of Africa in the last three years, even rivers and dams dried up, disrupting electricity supplies.

So the creeping climate change crisis on the continent could create major cross-border ripples. Trapped in a dangerous vicious cycle, different groups whose survival is dependent on healthy wild lands are facing off as their interests become irreconcilable.

If environmental nightmares that were once thought fictional are becoming reality; if armies have to be deployed to protect water towers against charcoal burners; and if owners of forests are clashing with forest resource users, it seems we have entered an era where we need to have environmental political risk scenarios, if we are to manage the fall out.

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The Nairobi-Naivasha road “charcoal closure” wasn’t random. All over the continent, most populations are concentrated along the highways. It is why political protests, and now ecological agitation, take place along highways. As Africa urbanises and its population continues to boom, these highways will increasingly be places where the contest over resources is played out.

Therefore, not only are environmental disputes disrupting domestic commerce, but for hinterland countries this has to be a matter of major concern.

Africa is the continent with the second most landlocked countries – 16 of them, so many nations face this risk.

But these disruptions in high-population areas along commercial corridors are perhaps not what has increased the economic risk for landlocked countries the most.

Overall, the world’s oceans are warmer now than at any point in the last 50 years. The resulting rising sea is a threat to people near the ocean. Some low-lying areas will have more frequent flooding, and very low-lying land could be submerged completely. Already, significant parts of the West African coast are being swallowed by the sea.

Beyond the effect of this on marine life and fishing, then, ports on which hinterland countries depend for their economic survival could be threatened.

In Kenya’s coastal Mombasa, where the east and central Africa’s main port is located, alarm bells are ringing about how rising sea levels could wipe out the lucrative tourism economy as hotels sink, and people forced to flee. The sub-region’s second port, Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania is facing the same threat.

The climate risk scenarios look more damning, if we consider that 17 countries in Africa are struggling with the impact of two consecutive years of drought, which has left more than 38 million people vulnerable. Look at the list: In the past three decades Africa suffered 27 per cent of the world’s reported fatalities from natural catastrophes (614,250 people) and experienced 1,560 weather-related catastrophes, such as drought, heat waves, storms and floods. It’s projected that rising temperatures can cut crop yields by as much as 20 per cent.

Though the rains finally came in parts of Kenya, drought conditions that are expected to persist into 2018 have left 3.4 million people severely food insecure, and an estimated 500,000 people without access to water.

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Some of the threats are easier to see. For example, more than 90,000 tourists flock the Serengeti National Park every year to see the Serengeti’s great annual migration, in which as many as 2 million wildebeest, zebras and gazelles travel thousands of kilometres between Tanzania and Kenya. The iconic wildebeest migration is of importance for tourism and has huge ecological significance, and is probably now in terminal peril.

Retaliatory killing

East Africa’s population has increased by 74 per cent between 1988 and 2008, and could further double by 2050. Water shortages are causing humans to compete with wildlife for resources and push into their territory leading to human-wildlife conflict, especially the lion, due to retaliatory killing. In the Sahel, and parts of West Africa, and Horn of Africa, we have seen the geopolitical face of dangerous climate change-driven migrations to Europe, and the Gulf over the Mediterranean and through war-torn Yemen.

The violent extremism in the region, is also partly made possible by the environmental crisis, as militants are able to promise alternative sustenance to people who can no longer survive on wastelands.

But it’s the risks of the next stage that should keep us awake at night. How long would populous country “A,” with tens of millions of hungry people, and all its livestock dying, look on peacefully at a smaller neighbour “B,” with pasture, and unfarmed fertile land?

They will probably invade them. So conservation could well be Africa’s first class ticket out of hell. Beyond planting trees, African countries need to develop a comprehensive and integrated approach to management of land, biodiversity, and water resources of affected areas to come up with efficient ways to reverse desertification and drought.

Otherwise, to end on another film theme, the possibility that Africa will be the scene of the first real “Hunger Games”, could become very real.

Mr Kaddu Sebunya is President of the African Wildlife Foundation ([email protected])

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