Wilfred Sumani – « Climate Change and its Implications for Livelihoods: A Perspective from the Global South »

Wilfred Sumani

« Climate Change and its Implications for Livelihoods: A Perspective from the Global South »

Concilium 2018-5. Ökologie und Theologie der Natur
Concilium 2018-5. Ecology and Theology
Concilium 2018-5. Ecología y teología de la naturaleza
Concilium 2018-5. Écologie et théologie de la nature
Concilium 2018-5. Ecologia e teologia della natura
Concilium 2018-5.

Linda Hogan, João Vila-Chã, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

Many moons ago, the Sahara desert was a lush belt populated by luxuriant savannah vegetation with tall trees dancing in the cool monsoon wind heralding rains. The forests teemed with animals swift and slow. During the day the Sahara was filled with the sweet melodies of birds clothed in majestic plumage, the confident buzzing of honey-making bees, and the snorting of antelopes. At night, the restful silence of the Sahara was punctuated by the screeching of bats, the chirping of cicadas and the roaring of lions.  Eight thousand years ago (8kya), Lake Chad, which today covers 1, 350 km2, sprawled across 330 000km2.

There lived people in the desert – a well-fed people, experts in the intricate arts of architecture and agriculture. Some came from the south, some from the Mediterranean coast, and others from the East – all hankering after the rich blessings of water, land and game in the Sahara.  They brought with them hunting skills and pastoral economies. Some among them distinguished themselves in the art of drawing. The ‘Tassili Frescoes’ – images of antelope, elephant, giraffe, hippopotamus, ostrich, rhinoceros and pastoral lifestyle – that can still be seen today in central Sahara, attest to the vibrant civilization that existed in the now arid area. The people were ruled by kings wise and strong. The legendary Scorpion King stands out among them all.

All was peaceful and tranquil until the climate changed. About 5, 500 years ago, the rains in the Saraha became erratic; the land became drier and dustier. Life was changing. The Sahara was on its way to becoming a desert. Communities tried to cope with the new development in different ways. The Garamantes, for instance, intensified horticulture and developed long-distance trade across the Sahara in a bid to survive in the harsh environment. The Garamante Kingdom persevered in these inhospitable conditions until around 1 600 years ago. But not all were as resilient as the Garamantes. Those who could not cope with the new climatic conditions moved north or south. Those who moved north established the Egyptian civilization along the Nile, while the Bantu moved south, bringing with them their agricultural skills (cultivation of millet and sorghum) and the art of making iron tools and weapons. Thus was the Sahara was deserted.[1]  

The story of the Sahara Desert illustrates in a dramatic manner the impact of climate change on livelihoods in different parts of the world. This essay examines the various ways in which climate change affects people’s lives in the global south, also known as the developing world or the “Third world.” On the basis of the findings, the essay suggests how communities can be empowered to adapt to or reverse climate change.

1. Impact of Climate Change on Livelihoods

The effects of climate change on the lives of people in the developing world can be summarized by four Hs: husbandry, habitation, heating and health. Husbandry represents agriculture (both animal and crop husbandry), while habitation refers to the way climate change affects the inhabitability of places. Heating stands for energy needs; health, instead, points to the various diseases arising from phenomena associated with climate change.


Agriculture constitutes the lion’s share of livelihoods in many developing countries. In  sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, agriculture accounts for an average of 15% of the total GDP, ranging from 3% in Botswana and South Africa to 50% in Chad. It employs more than half of the total African workforce. It is estimated that small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa constitute approximately 80% of agricultural activity and employs north of 175 million people.[2]  Agriculture in this region has tremendous potential for expansion, given that Africa boasts 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land.[3]

South America, home to 5.7% of the world population, produces 8.6% (491 million tons) of the world’s food and 21% of global meat production (that is, 355 million tons of cattle and buffalo).[4] As of 2014, Brazil alone accounted for 7.3% of global agricultural exports, the largest agricultural export of which was soya beans. Family farms represented 84% of the country’s farms and contributed 38% of the gross value of agricultural production.[5]

India, instead, whose population stands at 1.25 billion, has the world’s second largest area of arable land. Over 70% of rural Indian households depend on agriculture for livelihood. Grain output in the world’s largest democracy increased from 50 million tons in 1950-51 to about 250 million tonnes in 2014-15.[6] At the turn of the century, India overtook the United States as the world’s largest producer of milk.[7]

However, agriculture in the global south is highly dependent on rainfall. In Africa, for instance, 98% of small-holding farming is rain-fed.[8] Climate change, therefore, threatens to reverse these gains. One of the manifestations of climate change is low and variable rainfall patterns. It is reported that between 1990 and 2013, almost 43% of the drought events recorded in the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) occurred in the Sub-Saharan Africa. Due to adverse weather conditions, Eastern and Southern Africa registered a cereal output reduction of more than 10% in 2015.[9] In Ethiopia, between 1980 and 2014, the El-Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon is blamed for a reduction in crop yield in the Upper Awash Basin. El-Niño and La Niña led to 10.1% and 9.1% crop reduction, respectively.[10] A study warns that the number of malnourished people in Africa may rise from 223 million to 355 million by 2050 if no viable solutions to climate change are found.[11]

In India, climate extremes such as drought and floods have a severe impact on agricultural output. Rice, the staple food of the sub-continent, is particularly sensitive to climatic fluctuations. It is estimated that a 1oC increase in maximum temperatures can result in 11.9% decrease in rice crop yield. Based on current climatic trends, India’s rice output may decrease by 5.9 to 15.4% in 2100. Declining rice production in a growing population will translate into food crisis and will push the market price of the staple up.[12] A study conducted in Assam (India) in 2015 showed that rice cultivated during the kharif season (dependent on monsoon rains) was heavily affected by flooding, leading to a 63% crop reduction. In addition, the floods affected the quality of the crop. Overall, the study discovered that during a flood year, per capita income of the Assam people declined by 31.37%.[13]  


Rises in atmospheric temperature have not always led to disastrous developments. The Holocene period (about 10, 000 years ago), for instance, emerged as a result of substantial rise in temperature, thereby bringing an end to the chaotic ice age known as the Younger Dryas. The rise in temperature, notwithstanding periodic climatic fluctuations, favoured the growth of vegetation.[14] However, rise in atmospheric temperature is also behind the rise in sea level which, in turn, results in floods that destroy houses and property. Global warming has led to loss of habitable areas due to floods and desiccation. For instance, in February 2000, severe flooding in the Limpopo Province of South Africa resulted in the destruction of 45, 000 traditional dwellings.[15] In Africa’s urban areas, poor communities are negatively impacted by adverse climatic conditions, especially flooding, because many of them build their houses in unsafe areas. Some of the informal settlements obstruct water drainages. When it rains, therefore, these areas are heavily flooded.[16] Approximately 50% of Nairobi’s 3.4 million inhabitants live in slums which are largely flood plains adjacent to major rivers. Kibera slum, located along River Ngong, is often affected by floods.[17]  


Extreme weather conditions caused by climate change can bring about negative impacts on human health such as heat cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion and water-borne diseases. In Africa, for instance, drought conditions have been linked to such diseases as diarrhoea, scabies, conjunctivitis and trachoma. By virtue of affecting agricultural productivity, climate change may also lead to malnutrition. It is projected that in Africa, with warming of 1.2–1.7oC by 2050, the proportion of the undernourished population would increase by 25–90% compared to the present.[18] 

Due to climate change, malaria appears to be spreading into the highlands areas such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. The disease was not previously present in these areas. Overall, the incidence of malaria in eastern, central and southern Africa is expected to increase to between 40 and 80 million under a 2o C warming, and between 70–170 million under 4oC warming.[19]


The interplay between climate change and energy is multi-dimensional. In some cases, the energy is the independent variable while in others it is the dependent variable. Many countries in the global south depend on rain to generate hydroelectricity. Therefore, inadequate rainfall affects the capacity of hydroelectric plants to produce enough power to cater to the ever-expanding energy market. Zambia’s energy woes have been exacerbated by insufficient water levels in the Kariba Dam where electricity is generated. In 2016, the water level was at 12% and would take three years of rainfall to refill the dam. Water shortage has reduced Kariba’s performance from the installed capacity of 1080 megawatts to a paltry 380 megawatts.[20] Similarly, Kenya’s Masinga Dam risks closure if the country does not receive enough rains in 2018.[21] In Malawi, 95% of the electricity is generated from the dams on the Shire River. In recent times, electricity generation has reduced by up to 40% due to dwindling water levels in the river. Instead of the maximum capacity of 351 megawatts, the Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi (ESCOM) generates an average of 200 megawatts.[22] Low energy production has had disastrous consequences on the country’s economy, especially its attractiveness to foreign investment.

Many people in the global south depend on firewood. It is estimated that 81% of households in Sub-Saharan Africa use solid fuels, the highest percentage in the world.[23] Unfortunately, firewood is increasingly becoming a hard-to-get commodity in this region. There are a number of factors behind the growing scarcity of firewood. First, more and more land is taken up for agricultural purposes, thereby leaving little space for trees. Second, in a bid to mitigate climate change, governments have embarked on the protection of natural forests by banning logging. In February, 2018, for instance, the Kenyan Government imposed a 90-day ban on logging.[24] Firewood-fetching has consequently become a time-consuming activity, often obliging women and girls to walk long distances in search of firewood. This increases the level of absenteeism from school among rural girls.[25]

2. Adaptation to Climate Change

The aforementioned problems related to climate change cry for solutions. Communities need to be empowered to adapt to and enhance their resilience to climate change. Adaptation is defined as “the process of leading to the production of outputs in forms of activities and decisions taken by purposeful public and private sectors at different administrative levels and in different sectors, which deal intentionally with climate change impacts, and whose outcomes attempt to substantially impact actor groups, or geographical areas that are vulnerable to climate change.”[26] One of the desired features of adaptation is multi-level action; that is, decisions and actions have to be taken at various levels of government so as to involve as many actors as possible.[27]

Many countries in the global south have some form of national policy on climate change. This is not the place to make a litany of such policies. The problem, however, is how to operationalise these policies. Well-crafted documents end up collecting dust on the shelf. A related problem is that many of these policies lack context specificity and prefer to address the problem of climate change in general terms. Few countries in the developing world consistently collect data on climate change as it relates to specific contexts. Policies not backed by longitudinal studies are not persuasive enough, replete as they are with clichés that do not reflect reality on the ground. Such policies cannot guide concrete and measurable action.[28] Effective climate change policies need to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely (SMART).  

It is also not uncommon for governments in the developing world to respond to climate change with prohibitions rather than with measures for empowering communities to withstand or reverse the negative trend. For example, communities are ordered to stop logging, but they are not provided with alternative sources of energy. Since those who issue such prohibitions have access to electricity and/or gas, the charge of injustice can legitimately be raised. As an African proverb says, a child is weaned when his or her stomach is strong enough to digest harder foods. Poor communities can more effectively be weaned from biomass fuels when alternative sources of energy have been put in place.

Developing countries need to borrow a leaf from the developed world as far as investment in climate-change related research and development (R&D) is concerned. More sustainable agricultural methods need to explored, in order to respond to erratic rains and the shrinking agricultural land, on the one hand, and the ballooning population, on the other. Indigenous energy technologies need to be developed so that adaptation to climate change does not entrench the developing world’s technological dependence on the global north.

Speaking of technologies, there is need for a thorough assessment of the long-term climatic impact of what is believed to be green energy now. Once upon a time, the invention of plastic was celebrated to be a benevolent addition to human civilisation. Today, however, chickens have come home to roost as the same plastic has become an environmental disaster. As the human community searches for environmentally friendly technologies, it is necessary to conduct 360-degree assessments of the long-term impacts of these innovations. For instance, how environmentally sustainable are the components of solar energy, especially when considered on a large scale? What will be the environmental impact of out-of-use solar panels in the future?  As the demand for renewable energy grows, there will be a flurry of innovation seeking to cash in on the demand for climate smart technologies. Some of the new technologies will be good, but others may be detrimental to health and the environment. Poor countries are particularly prone to cheap and unhealthy innovations. In other words, care should be taken that climate change does not become another colonising narrative, whereby the developing world is used as a testing ground for potentially hazardous technologies.   

3. Ecological Restoration as a Theological Enterprise

One of the conceptions of a reform is the idea of a return to a status pristinus, a lost moment of bliss, a recovery of the lost paradise.[29] Though this view of reform is sometimes guilty of arid archaeologism, a nostalgic longing for an idealised past, there is something valuable about recovering something that has been lost.  In the paschal reflections of the Fathers, Christ had to die and rise again in the season of spring because the world is believed to have been created in spring. This idea goes all the way back to Jewish symbolism of the date of the Passover. Philo of Alexandria writes,

The vernal equinox is an imitation and representation of that beginning in accordance with which this world was created. Accordingly, every year, God reminds men of the creation of the world, and with this view puts forward the spring, in which season all plants flourish and bloom; for which reason this is very correctly set down in the law as the first month, since, in a manner, it may be said to be an impression of the first beginning of all, being stamped by it as by an archetypal Seal.[30]

Christian imagination has associated the spring equinox with the resurrection of Christ.  By rising in the season in which God created the world, Christ restores the whole creation to its original state of harmony and communion with God. In addition, the Fathers elaborate that, when God created the world, there was balance in the universe. However, when the universe was set in motion, the universe lost its original balance.[31]

The restoration of the environment is, therefore, an expression of the Easter faith. By planting trees, one contributes to the restoration of the biodiversity that existed at the moment of creation. The ecological ‘Great Work’ to which Thomas Berry invites all –namely, to rediscover the ancient way of living in harmony with nature, when animals and humans were relatives[32] – is a deeply theological enterprise.


There is a growing consensus that climate change is happening. Unfortunately, the recent withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement sends confusing signals to the developing world. If a country as rich as the United States feels the necessity to continue pursuing environmentally unfriendly paths to development, what about poor nations still struggling to meet the basic needs of the majority of their citizenry! To borrow Jesus’ rhetorical question, if they do these things in an economically green tree, what shall be done in the economically dry?[33] There is a lot of scepticism about climate change partly because of the contradictory phenomena attributed to the same reality: too little rain and too much rain, for instance. Such apparently contradictory attributions make climate change discourse appear to be a totalizing narrative thrown around as an explanation for every emerging problem.  To lend credibility to the reality of climate change, it is important to record and study context-specific data. Furthermore, developing countries need to be proactive in finding solutions to the problems associated with climate change.

[1] Cf. William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 223-233.

[2] Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development & Food and Agriculture Organisation, Agriculture Outlook 2016-2025, OECD-FAO, 2016, 60. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/a-BO092E.pdf.

[3] Adam Jezard, “2 Truths About Africa’s Agriculture,” World Economic Forum, 22 January, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/how-africa-can-feed-the-world/.

[4] João Carlos de Moraes Sá, Rattan Lal, Carlos Clemente Cerri, Klaus Lorenz, Mariangela Hungria and Paulo Cesar de Faccio Carvalho, “Low-Carbon Agriculture in South America to Mitigate Global Climate Change and Advance Food Security,” Environmental International, 98 (2017), 102-112, at 102.

[5] Food and Agriculture Organisation, Brazil: Country Fact Sheet on Food and Agriculture Policy Trends (FAO, 2014), 1. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/field/009/i3759e/i3759e.pdf.

[6] Food and Agriculture Organisation, India: FAO Country Programming Framework 2015 – 2017 (FAO), 6. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/a-bp575e.pdf.

[7] Adam Cagliarini and Anthony Rush, “Economic Development and Agriculture in India,” Reserve Bank of Australia Bulletin (June, 2011), pp.15-22, at 15.

[8][8] Mark Kinver, “Africa’s farmers face ‘failed seasons’ risks,” BBC News (2 September, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29015418.

[9] OECD-FAO, 73.

[10] Abdisa Alemu, Dirba Korecha, and Muktar Mohamod , “Impacts of Various ENSO Phases on Cereal Crop Productivity in the Upper Awash Basin, Central High Land of Ethiopia,” in The Impact of El Niño onBiodiversity, Agriculture and Food Security. Proceedings of the International Conference, 23-24 February 2017. Haramaya University, Ethiopia, edited by   W.D. Sintayehu et al (Dire Dawa: Haramaya University, 2017), pp.3-17, at 15.

[11] Mark Kinver, “Africa’s farmers face ‘failed seasons’ risks,” BBC News (2 September, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29015418.

[12] J.M.A. Duncan, J. Dash, and E.L. Tompkins, “Observing Adaptive Capacity in Indian Rice Production Systems,” AIMS Agriculture and Food, 2(2017), 165-182, at 182.

[13] Sanjay Kumar Chetia, Tomizuddin Ahmed, Ram Singh and S.M. Feroze, “Impact of Floods on Rice Based Farming in Assam: A Gender Study,” Journal of Eco-friendly Agriculture 10(2015), 43-46, at 44-45. 

[14] Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory, 47.

[15] Masingita Khandlhela and  Julian May, Poverty, vulnerability and the impact of flooding in the Limpopo Province, South Africa,” Nat Hazards, 39 (2006), 275-287, at 275.

[16] Ian Douglas, Kurshid Alam, Maryanne Meghenda, Yasmin McDonnell, Louise McLean and Jack Campbell, “Unjust Waters: Climate Change, Flooding and the Urban Poor in Africa,” Environment & Urbanization, 20 (2008), 187-205, at 187-189.

[17] Benard Juma, “Flood Inundation, Risk and Impact in Kibera Slums of Nairobi-Kenya,” Multi-Hazard Early Warning Conference (22-23 May 2017, Cancún, Mexico) and Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (24-26 May 2017, Cancun Mexico). Retrieved from https://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/drr/documents/mhews-ref/posters-pdfs/1.11%20-%20Juma%20B%20Floods%20slums%20MHEWC%202017%20poster.pdf.

[18] Olivia Serdeczny et al, “Climate change impacts in Sub-Saharan Africa: from physical changes to their social repercussions,” Regional Environmental Change, 17 (2017), 1585-1600, at 1593-1594.

[19] Olivia Serdeczny at al, “Climate Change Impacts,” 1594.

[20] Nkombo Kachemba, “Kariba Dam Water Level Still Low – Siliya,” Zambia Daily Mail (10 March, 2016). Retrieved from https://www.daily-mail.co.zm/kariba-dam-water-level-still-low-siliya/.

[21] Winnie Otieno and Neville Otuki, “Kenya Banks on Rains to Ease Cost of Power,” Daily Nation (22 March, 2018), 38.

[22] Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi, “An Update on the Current Water Levels and the Energy Situation in Malawi.” Retrieved from  http://www.escom.mw/waterlevels-energysituation-malawi.php.

[23] G. Abigaba, G. Niyibizi, Y. Turinayo, and S. Nansereko, “Implications of Fuel Wood Scarcity on Livelihoods of Rural

Communities of Nyarubuye Sub-County in Kisoro District, South Western Uganda,” Uganda Journal of Agricultural Sciences, 17(2016), 43-50, at 44.

[24] W. Gitonga, “Government bans logging,” Citizen Digital (24 February, 2018). Retrieved from https://citizentv.co.ke/news/government-bans-logging-191860/.

[25] Abigaba et al, “Implications of Fuel Wood Scarcity on Livelihoods of Rural Communities,” 47. The vulnerability of women to climate change in India is highlighted by S.S. Yadav and R. Lal, “Vulnerability of women to climate change in arid and semi-arid regions: The case of India and South Asia,” Journal of Arid Environments, 149(2018), 4-17.

[26] J. Dupuis and R. Biesbroek, “Comparing Apples and Oranges: The Dependent Variable Problem in Comparing and Evaluating Climate Change Adaptation Policies,” Global Environmental Change, 23 (2013), 1476-1487, at 1480.

[27] M. Araos, J. Ford, L. Berrang-Ford, R. Biesbroek, and S. Moser, “Climate Change Adaptation Planning for Global South Megacities: The Case of Dhaka,” Journal for Environmental Policy & Planning, 19(2017), 682-696, at 684.

[28] Araos et al, “Climate Change Adaptation Planning for Global South Megacities,” 688.

[29] Cf. G. B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers, Harper & Row, New York 1967,

[30] Philo of Alexandria, On Special Laws II, 151-152, in The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, translated by C.D. Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts 1993, 582.

[31] A. Chupungco, Shaping the Easter Feast, The Pastoral Press, Washington, DC 1992.

[32] T. Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, New York: Bell Tower, 1999, 22.

[33] Cf. Luke 23:31.


Climate change has had adverse effects on the livelihoods of people in the Global South. Drought, irregular climatic patterns and floods have led to low agricultural yields, loss of lives and property and massive migrations from vulnerable areas. Unfortunately, not many governments in the developing world have put in place measures to help people to adapt to climatic changes. Developing countries need to adopt a two-tiered approach to climate change: In the short term, technologies need to be put in place to help people deal with problems associated with climate change.  In the long term, there must be concerted efforts to restore creation to its original state of grace before anthropogenic interventions deformed the face of the earth.


Wilfred Sumani, S.J. is a Malawi-born Jesuit priest currently teaching at Hekima Jesuit School of Theology, Nairobi. He obtained his doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy, Sant’Anselmo, in 2015.


School of Theology, Hekima University College, P O Box 21215-00505 NRB, Kenya.

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