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Vulnerability to Climate Change: An Assessment of East and Central Africa


From the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law

Executive Summary

The east and central region of Africa – comprising the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa – has a long history of civil strife, political violence, health epidemics, famine, and economic instability. The challenges facing the east and central Africa region today are complex and interdependent. Consequently, the region is particularly vulnerable to climate change on several fronts. First, the region’s ability to adapt to a changing physical environment is jeopardized by poor governance, scant resources, drought, ethnic conflict, and population growth. Moreover, the direct and indirect effects of climate change will likely exacerbate these social, political, economic, and environmental challenges facing the region. Second, the nations of east and central Africa are highly disposed to climate-related hazards like drought and flooding. Climate projections for the coming decades depict heightened climatological stress in the region as rainfall becomes less predictable, temperatures rise, and dry seasons lengthen; thus climate-related weather hazards are likely to continue. Lastly, east and central Africa is home to high levels of human-induced environmental stress, like deforestation and extensive land use, which exacerbates the climaterelated environmental changes and the ability of rural households to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Given these salient characteristics of east and central Africa, this report presents a model of vulnerability that places special emphasis on the physical and environmental contributors to climate change in the region. The model of vulnerability presented here also incorporates underlying political, social, economic, and demographic factors as key determinants of the effect of climate change on livelihoods. As such, this report outlines the potential impact of climate change on human security in the region and identifies areas of concern. This assessment identifies western Ethiopia, southern Sudan, eastern Burundi, and the tri-border region between Uganda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as the most vulnerable to climate change. The high levels of vulnerability are driven by different contributing factors in each of these areas, ranging from poor socioeconomic conditions to high historical frequency of climate-related hazards and elevated environmental stress.

Human-induced environmental stress and physical exposure to climatological events are central to this vulnerability model. Some countries like Ethiopia, Burundi, Tanzania, and Somalia are exposed to elevated levels of environmental stress from activities such as deforestation and intensive agriculture. These four countries in particular have been cutting more than 1 percent of their forests annually and have over 75 percent of the labor force employed in agriculture. Furthermore, some future climate projections anticipate an increased frequency of extreme weather events that already affect east and central Africa, such as droughts, flooding, fires, desertification, and coastal erosion. This model shows that northern Uganda, northern DRC, southern Sudan, and western Ethiopia have been the sites of a significant number of these extreme weather events.

Low levels of socioeconomic development and governance also increase vulnerability to climate change. For example, poor health care and infrastructure and low investment in human capital expose populations of Ethiopia, the DRC, Burundi, and southern Sudan to otherwise preventable consequences of external shocks. High rates of malnutrition in the East African highlands make entire communities more susceptible to climate-sensitive infectious diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and poor physical infrastructure makes it difficult for vulnerable populations such as pastoralists to access basic health services. Poor governance indicates a lack of institutional capacity to respond to these pressing, chronic human security issues. Consequently, countries like Somalia, the DRC, and Sudan are less likely to exhibit the ability to respond or adapt to climaterelated crises under changing conditions in the future.

The countries of east and central Africa are diverse, and myriad underlying characteristics influence the variations seen in vulnerability to climate change across the region. National and sub-national differences in vulnerability to climate change cannot be attributed to only one factor, but rather a collection of diverse factors specific to even the smallest geographic areas. This report aims to provide detailed information about the region to help target aid and adaptation policies to the sub-national areas of east and central Africa in most need.