Heike Barkawitz

More than 50 African leaders meeting at the UN this week focused on strategies to overcome a myriad of interrelated problems — food shortages, droughts, HIV/AIDS, an energy crisis, climate change and military conflicts — on the troubled continent. “It is a sad irony to note that those who contribute to climate change less are those who suffer from it the most,” stressed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his opening remarks to the 63rd annual General Assembly, which ends Oct. 1.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), land degradation is a major problem for 34 countries in Africa. An average population growth of 2.5% — compared to 1.2% in Latin America and Asia — combined with a reduction of arable land led to a decrease in productivity, said Mounkaila Goumandakoye, director of UNEP Africa. Mitigation and adaptation technologies do exist, experts stressed, but have not been made widely available on the continent. These challenges could be met by stepping up environmental education and information exchanges, and by creating a community of best practices, Goumandakoye suggested.

Abdoulie Janneh also emphasised the need for more regional cooperation and investment in renewable energy resources. “Africa has 14% of the world population but accounts for only three percent of the world energy consumption,” he said. “Energy is essential for enterprise development, value addition, increased productivity and income-generation to reduce poverty and hunger.” Today, renewable energy projects account for about $115 billion, but only $1 billion of that sum is in Africa, said Kandeh Yumkella, director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organisation. “If communities don’t have energy sources, food crises cannot be overcome,” he noted.

Annika Soder of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) suggested that the West African region in particular could generate renewable energy out of products and by-products of agriculture and forestry. Ban emphasised the need for another “green revolution”. “Food security can be achieved through the right combination of policies, technologies and investments,” he said. “During the green revolution in Asia, most countries spent between 11-14% of their national budgets on agriculture. The sector also received a good deal of international support. We must now intensify our efforts to cause a green revolution in Africa.”

General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann also called for an increased and concerted action by African governments and their development partners. “The declaration we have just adopted with consensus contains an agenda for action,” he said. “Apart from the great global challenge of poverty, the food crisis is prominently featured along with its potentially ruinous impact on the achievement of the MDGs. Climate change, Africa’s vulnerability to its effects and the need for new and additional resources to deal with them are highlighted in the declaration.”

However, without an awareness of climate change and without a will to change lifestyles, particularly in the developed countries, escalating food crises in the poorest regions cannot be overcome. “If we don’t change our habits, the poorest of the poor will be the ones to suffer most,” Yumkella concluded.