In the heart of the African continent, nestled between the Sahara Desert to the north and lush equatorial forests to the south, lies the Nile Basin. This expansive region, home to over 200 million people, hosts one of the world’s iconic rivers, the Nile, which snakes through 11 countries over some 6,655 kilometres.
Wetlands such as those in the Nile Basin are indispensable to African communities. They are not just sources of livelihoods, but also guardians of resilience and biodiversity. From rivers and lakes, to mangroves, marshes, swamps, deltas and peatlands, wetlands offer ecosystem services including flood regulation, carbon sequestration and water purification.
Wetland ecosystems have silently served as nature’s guardians against climate change impacts. The Nile Basin’s unique geography and hydrology, like other major river basins in Africa such as the Congo, Limpopo, and Niger, play a crucial role in regulating the regional climate.
Wetlands in general, store almost a third of global soil carbon and support 40 per cent of biodiversity. They punch above their weight in their ability to store carbon, support livelihoods, regulate water cycles and sustain biodiversity.
Peatlands, for example, are a type of wetlands ecosystem where waterlogged conditions prevent organic matter from decaying fully, leading to the formation of layers of peat over decades. They cover only three per cent of the globe’s land surface yet store more carbon than all other ecosystems, and a fifth of all carbon is in their soils. Africa’s extensive peatlands exist in large river basins like the Congo, Nile, Limpopo and Okavango Delta. However, of all the types of wetlands, peatlands are the least known. For example, in 2017, the world’s largest tropical peatland was ‘uncovered’ by scientists in Cuvette Centrale that spans both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo.
This is one of many instances the world over, where wetlands have been viewed as wastelands – to be drained for other uses, mainly agriculture, infrastructural development and resource extraction. Globally, wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests, with a 35% loss of wetland ecosystems since 1970. Sadly, their degradation and loss are escalating the four crises of our time: food, water, biodiversity and climate.
Africa, despite its minimal contribution to the causes of climate change, bears the brunt of its brutal effects. In the last decade and a half, extreme and unpredictable weather events have been on the rise with devastating impacts on the people, exacerbating hunger, loss of livelihoods, displacements and economic volatility. For instance, the Horn of Africa is currently experiencing the worst drought in 40 years and weather predictions indicate that the region will soon be hit by a deluge from the El Nino phenomenon. Tropical cyclones and hurricanes in Mozambique are now more frequent and severe. These scenarios are replicated in the entire continent. According to the African Development Bank, Africa is losing 5% to 15% of its per capita economic growth due to climate change effects.
One Voice in Unity
The Africa Climate Summit and Week hosted in Nairobi provide a necessary platform for heads of government, policymakers, civil society and multilateral organisations, private sector and individuals to discuss green growth and climate finance solutions for Africa and beyond. Without a doubt, African leaders will be urged to make ambitious commitments for their own countries, emphasising not only the value of ecosystems like wetlands but also encouraging Africa’s policymakers to speak to the world, particularly to the wealthy nations, with one voice and act as one. This Summit is a precursor to the COP 28 to be held at the end of this year where African leaders will also be in negotiations on climate change issues.
Wetlands must be recognised for their pivotal role as one of the most effective nature-based solutions to climate regulation, both in mitigation and adaptation. They must be integrated into climate change financing at national, regional and global levels, bringing about transformative change on the ground, particularly for local communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on wetland ecosystems and whose lives are highly impacted by climate change.
More importantly, local communities in Africa and those in the ‘global south’ must not only have a say, but a genuine, weighty stake in climate financing. At the national and sub-national levels, policy and decision-makers should ensure that climate action plans incorporate local perspectives. As climate change is not a preserve of Africa, equity, justice, transparency and fulfilment of obligations by all parties must therefore be seen and felt.
Further, Africa’s leaders at the Summit should seize this opportunity to unite in their vision and speak with one voice to further our interests and priorities. That vision should stand for a better future for the African people, their livelihoods and economies, for healthy natural ecosystems such as wetlands that support our water and food systems, for thriving biodiversity, and for lasting peace and stability.