Taking as much as we need: Why climate change matters?

Taking as much as we need, and no more: Why climate change matters?

Climate change, why fear?

Abu-Bakar S. Massaquoi

The rate of environmental change in Sierra Leone is concerning. The country now ranks the 3rd most vulnerable to climate change in the world according to the 2013 Maplecroft index, ranked before Haiti (4th), South Sudan (5th), Nigeria (6th), DR Congo (7th), Cambodia (8th), Philippines (9th) and Ethiopia (10th).

A good explanation of this is that the gravest of threats will be recorded in these countries through sea level rise, demographic issues, increase in temperature, precipitation and humidity, low agricultural yield, absolute poverty levels, health hazards and natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, storms and drought. You will find that 6 of the top most vulnerable countries are in Africa, where about 25% of the population presently experience high water stress.

The population at risk of increased water stress in Africa is projected to be between 75 to 250 million and 350 to 600 million people by the 2020s and 2050s, respectively. Africa is thought to be particularly vulnerable to climate change because of variouspressuresresulting from politics and economic conditions, the reliance on natural resources and its weak adaptive capacity. At the same time, it could be that the situation is exacerbated by existing challenges such as endemic poverty, governance inefficiency limited access to capital, including markets, infrastructure and technology; environmental degradation; and complex disasters and conflicts.


Causes and consequences

Many writers in the field agree that humans are the main cause of climate change. This can be seen in the case of Sierra Leone where logging, slash and burn, charcoal production are on the rise. The savannah areas have progressively been key sites for regular uncontrolled fires. Low-key farming practices such as shifting cultivation, felling, burning, short fallow periods etc and overgrazing can be included as notable drivers.

The increasing population, urbanisation and the resulting housing needs could be major reasons for the boom in the timber sector, water stress in cities and the stretch ofslums in Freetown specifically. In addition, and emerging more recently, are land lease deals that could take away farmlands and increase livelihood vulnerability and poverty in rural areas. The mangrove swamps have also not been spared. Along the coast, mangrove forests are gradually being exploited for fuelwood and rice cultivation.

In Freetown, the Aberdeen creek has been excessively exploited, with buildings coming up everywhere. It should not be astounding that flooding, land and mudslides and their related deaths are now more common than we have known for many years. The exploitation and increased exposure of the environment has not only affected fish stocks, or caused floods, they have affected market prices for everyday goods that are in short supply.

At this time, we should be seeking to know more clearly what this scale of changewould mean for a small countrywith one of the least capabilities (in the world) to adapt and respond to climate change. Let’s take agriculture, which is is the largest sector in the economy, employing 65 percent of the labour force and contributing 35-45% of the GDP. Because we depend primarily on smallholder farmers for our food, a decline in arable land and food productivity will give rise to price hikes, and ultimately, worsen food insecurity.

These direct impacts could have many indirect and derived impacts. For example, more food instability and increased poverty caused by loss of farmlands, low food productivity (some of the food could be sold) and other means of support for households, couldaffect present-dayestimates for literacy, healthcare and income inequality. This should worry us even more, knowing the records we have as a country. For example, with a crude death rate of 20 per 1000, Sierra Leone remains one of the African countries south of the Sahara with the highest death rates. Until recently, Sierra Leone had the world’s highest child mortality rate, 262 deaths per 1,000 live births; life expectancy is still low, at 48.4 years according to the 2004 census.

Let’s move on to something more priceless- water. ‘Water is life’is a popular axiom in Africa, underpinning the high level of importance the people of the continent place on the resource. With Freetown being hard-hit by water stress, we should expect to see more shortage with the declining annual rainfall. This, in turn, could increase the demand for water, potentially threatening the sustainability of supplies. Additionally,there is an increased risk of flooding, leading to both infrastructure damage and contamination of surface and groundwater supplies.

In rural areas for example, floods could damage or inundate springs, wells, rainwater harvesting systems and boreholes, though boreholes are typically less vulnerable. This can hamper both access to water and cause contamination and health risks. Piped systems in cities are also vulnerable because of their size and complexity, and their exposure to multiple threats from source, through treatment to delivery.

Pit latrines are also vulnerable to flooding and can cause serious environmental contamination, although adapted designs are available and latrines can be upgraded. Water-borne sanitation may also be compromised. To this list, we could also add sea level rise and the threat this poses to coastal zones. These consequences could have devastating impacts on communities, ranging from economic and social impacts to health and food insecurity, all of which could threaten the continued existence of many parts of the country.


When I first read the accounts above, I had the urge to explicate the situation in the clearest terms and soundest ways possible, and through the best means available. I was moved into doing so, because I knew that many of the issues raised are happening and getting worse. I never had the chance to do so, and since then, the situation in Sierra Leone has worsened- with increased land and mudslides, flooding and low food crop production.

This year, we all know it has not rained as it we normally anticipate, which sets the picture more clearly before us. We indeed have an emergency situation, but we can take steps to save our country. First, I must admit that our generation has not been spacious and allowing. We continue to take out nearly everything that will define the future of the next generation.

Could poverty be a cause? Could it also be governance? Have we not made a good enough case?Have we not sensitised enough about the dangers of environmental degradation? Reading the above passages over and over, explains the need to find new and better ways of making ‘a good case’, especially by people who have a felt sense of the situation. With climate change, we are presented with a new, evolving and tougher challenge.

With this challenge, we are beginning to reflect on who we are and what has happened to both the planet and ourselves. We are stuck between learning about a situation we once thought we could control, and leading against time. We are only now thinking about processes that will allow us to get used to slowing down and listening to ourselves…even reflecting on our actions.

We have not been able to answer the question- what has been gained (after years of depletion)? But we can quickly and boldly say what has beenand is stillbeing lost. Climate change indeed helps us understand that our predictions, whether based on specialised scientific or local knowledge and methods usually do not hold. Our predictions and prophecies in the recent past have all gone awry. At least, we should be satisfied that we have done our best to protect our communities and ourselves, but we may have just done less than we need to avert and address the risks fairly and lastingly.

As we would accept, climate change is a new challenge indeed. Novel problems require novel solutions. We cannot become and make global leaders of tomorrow, unless we have and are able to protect our own spaces in the world. If we accept that this challenge is tough and new, then we must intervene in new and better ways. One way to show we are ready for the challenge is to work on ourselves.

As humans, we see ourselves as a superior mode of being; as the source of all rights and values. We reason so differently and irrationally that we think all other earthly beings are instruments to be exploited for human benefit. We operate on nature as though it were dead; a mechanical thing out there with which we are empowered to do as we please. We have shown little sign of seeking new ways of getting out of the impasse in which we find ourselves.

We have significantly complicated our cultural interrelationship with nature and successfully concealed the costs of our growing domination and appropriation of the material world. Though dominant in our societies, we are losing control of both the destruction of nature and its recreation. Actually, we have only managed to dominate ourselves in new and alarming ways.

The consistent structural inequalities and the rush to innovate new ways of adapting to environmental change across the world today, are good examples to cite.We therefore owe our communities a duty…what many theorists call ‘the great work of a people’. If we must build comfortable and mutually enhancing communities, then the starting point ought to be degrading those power relations that cause domination, or require some form of dominion for their production.

The process must consider ways of acquiring new and specialised knowledge to gain and make good judgments; become more engaged, and contribute more to rule-making and climate management practice in our communities. Achieving these won’t be easy, but to achieve them will mean seeing more clearly and knowing more comfortably that we are this change that we must address, which makes it easier and rewarding altogether.

But our great work as a people is defined and enabled by knowing our roles, rights and responsibilities in the process. It is defined also by making an expert case, like I am doing now. On this challenge specifically, we have more sources of knowledge and leadership in our communities and countries than we can ever need. What is lacking in my opinion, is an understanding of what is important and the resolve to act.

I wont bother you with policies for and lessons from climate management initiatives in the country. I want to be as simple and sincere as possible. Policy and effective practice are needed, but these should be part of a broader common vision for changing our attitudes and lifestyles. The change I refer to here can be diverse, ranging from taking responsibility for cutting down a tree (as individuals) to developing an atmosphere for ecological citizenship (as a government).

It should be clear now that we have a chance of reversing or at least stabilising the current trend, if we take the right and very bold steps. We should know now that our environment is like our food store at home. We go on to stock it even more than we need; we make sure there is always a surplus, but we take only as much as we need for the day, and no more, so that we can go on getting it for as long as we planned. Because we know that the environment produces a harvestable surplus, we sometimes take more resources than we need.

If we can harvest as much as we need, and be careful to only take that much, and no more, then, we can go on getting the goods and services for many generations.With the effects we may have felt in one way or another, it is clear that we have a felt sense already, so it should be easy to innovate, collaborate, negotiate, coordinate and act. Let’s seize the chance to act today, and save the next generation.


Abu-Bakar S. Massaquoi is a Sustainability Scientist specializing in climate change, development and resilience. His research broadly concerns the governance of climate changeand social-ecological systems in Africa, focusing on perspectives on resilience and livelihoods transformations, and human development and ecosystem services tradeoffs.Prior to commencing a doctoral-level study in Enland, he served as the National Programme Coordinator for the UNDP/Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP) in Sierra Leone, and asCommunications Coordinator for an environmental governance programme implemented by USAID West Africa and the US Forest Service- International Programmes across West Africa. He was recently the consultant (climate policy and Institutions) for the Africa Initiative for Adaptation and Loss and Damage- a region-wide study funded by UNDP Africa for the AU’s African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN).



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