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Climate Change Could Turn the Horn of Africa into a Drier, More Unstable Region

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Leadership & Transparency
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Ethiopia’s famine, which vaulted the country into global headlines 30 years ago, has left much of the world with stubborn images of a dry, desolate and inhospitable country in which to live.

While that is very true of the Danakil Depression, and the country east of its capitol, Addis Ababa, is remarkably arid, the truth is that much of the country is green and lush. It is because of this rich land that as one of the planet’s oldest societies, Ethiopia has made many contributions, culturally and economically, to the world. One notable example of Ethiopia’s impact on our global economy and culture is coffee. Arabica coffee beans trace their origins to Ethiopia, and now coffee is the country’s largest foreign export.

But coffee, farms and livelihoods throughout the region may suffer from climate change's long-term effects. According to a report issued by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Ethiopia, along with its neighbors on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti and Somalia, have become drier the past 100 years, and these trends may lead to even less precipitation in the foreseeable future. Less rain, paired with warmer temperatures, could spark increasing tensions in a corner of the world that has already seen its share of conflict.

Somaliland, which has functioned as a separate state since cutting off ties with Somalia in the early 1990s, is relatively stable but receives little international aid since it is not internationally recognized as an official nation; Djibouti already has its struggles due to having few natural resources while a high percentage of its population lives in poverty; and although Ethiopia’s poverty rate has fallen significantly since 2000, tensions with Eritrea still result in conflicts along their disputed border. Add the lawlessness in the strategically important Gulf of Aden, and climate change could wreak havoc throughout a region that has been on the steady yet slow road to social healing and economic recovery.

It is in the Gulf of Aden where Earth Institute researchers conducted research and arrived at their conclusion that climate change could result in a long-term decline in rainfall within the region. The team of scientists extracted sediment from the gulf’s pirate-ridden waters and analyzed the core to determine past changes in aridity and temperatures. Cross-referencing information they could glean from this sediment with climate data dating back to the 20th century, researchers have posited that the weather will continue to become drier and warmer in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland and Somalia.

This assessment contrasts sharply with what had been largely accepted by the scientific community: that climate change, by adding even more moisture to the earth’s atmosphere, would actually create more precipitation and create a wetter climate, therefore potentially benefiting this region both environmentally and economically.

Africa’s past history also nudged the Earth’s Institute researchers to ascertain that the Horn of Africa is a on course towards a drier climate. Additional analysis of Gulf of Aden sediment, according to a 2013 study, suggests that the desertification of the Sahara 5,000 years ago occurred relatively quickly, in 100 to 200 years — not gradually, as was the assumption of most researchers who have studied Africa’s climatic patterns.

These conclusions add to what many experts are already saying about climate change: the gradual but steady warming of the earth will have a far more devastating impact in poorer countries. Such forecasts are why a self-described alliance of vulnerable nations, or the V-20, held an inaugural meeting yesterday in Lima, Peru, to discuss how they will cope with the brunt of social upheaval and economic losses. Ethiopia, incidentally, was one of the first nations to disclose its climate plan in the buildup to the COP21 talks next month in Paris.

The Horn of Africa is already home to what many describe as the world’s first “failed state.” While Somalia’s neighbors have made a valiant effort in ensuring that they would not suffer the same fate, these nations are now likely to face even more challenges in the years ahead as they strive to lift more of their citizens out of poverty.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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