Water stress to displace 700 million in Africa by 2030, WMO warns

Climate-related disasters such as persistent droughts are pushing millions into crisis in countries across Africa, including Somalia, where the UN warns famine is looming. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh, File)

Climate-related disasters such as persistent droughts and devastating floods could displace up to 700 million people in Africa by 2030, the WMO has warned.

Extreme weather fuelled by climate change has pushed around 250 million people into high water stress, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Thursday, while 700 million are expected to be displaced by 2030 due to water-related crises.

Africa is bearing the brunt of climate change, according to the annual State of the Climate in Africa report, despite being responsible for roughly two to three per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The impact of global warming has disrupted rainfall patterns, diminished water supplies and driven up the frequency of catastrophic droughts and floods in countries across the continent, which experienced one of its warmest years on record in 2021. 

Around 418 million people in Africa currently lack even a basic level of drinking water while 779 million lack basic sanitation services. The WMO warned increased water demand combined with frequent droughts will put further pressure on dwindling water supplies in the coming years.

Severe droughts in East Africa following consecutive failed rainy seasons have driven millions into crisis, increasing pressure on already scarce water sources and driving up displacement, the WMO said. 

Data included in the report showed that, in the past 50 years, drought-related hazards in Africa have claimed the lives of over half a million people and led to economic losses of over $70 billion in the region.

Prolonged droughts combined with rising temperatures and protracted conflict have reduced food availability and access, pushing millions into food insecurity. The Horn of Africa is currently experiencing its worst drought in 40 years, with experts warning that the region is on track for a fifth consecutive failed rainy season. 

The figures come after the United Nations warned this week that parts of Somalia will be hit by famine between October and December as drought worsens and global food prices surge. UNICEF said on Tuesday that over 700 children have already died in nutrition centres across the country.

Aid agencies have warned that Ethiopia and Kenya could also be facing their worst drought in 40 years, with drier-than-average conditions predicted in the coming months in addition to disrupted food supplies, delayed rains and persistent armed conflict. More than 1.8 million children across the Horn of Africa require urgent treatment for severe acute malnutrition, according to the UN. 

“The worsening crisis and looming famine in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa shows how climate change can exacerbate water shocks, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and destabilising communities, countries and entire regions,” said Professor Petteri Taalas, Secretary General of the WMO.

Meanwhile, many parts of Northern Africa including Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Libya have experienced extreme heat which brought sand and dust storms as well as wildfires last year, the WMO said. 

Severe floods have also affected a number of countries including Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, DRC, Burundi and South Sudan, which recorded the third year of extreme flooding in a row following intense rainfall in 2020 and 2021. More than 1000 flood-related disasters were reported involving more than 20,000 deaths in the same period.

“In 2021, Africa was hit by a number of high-impact events.,” said Prof. Taalas in the report. “Lingering droughts, extensive floods and tropical cyclones, compounded by protracted conflicts, economic slowdowns and downturns, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, jeopardised food security, drove population displacement, and led to devastating losses and damages impairing socioeconomic development.”

Chronic flooding and droughts as well as other climate-related hazards such as sea level rise and extreme weather events have continued to drive up displacement both within countries and across borders. Around 14.1 million people were internally displaced in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2021, including 11.5 million due to conflict and violence and 2.5 million due to disasters. 

The WMO said sea levels have risen along Africa’s coastlines faster than the global average, putting between 108 million and 116 million exposed to sea level rise risk by 2030, including flooding and dwindling water supplies due to salinity. 

Sources of freshwater on the continent are also shrinking, the report found, with the total surface area of Lake Chad which borders Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger having shrunk from 25,000 km² in the 1960s to 1350 km² in the 2000s.

The WMO called for a dramatic increase in access to early warning systems to protect countries against extreme weather systems. Only 40 per cent of the African population currently have access to such systems, lagging far behind other regions. 

“It is imperative for the continent to accelerate efforts to establish robust regional and national early warning systems and climate services for climate-sensitive sectors in order to strengthen climate resilience and adaptation capacities,” said Prof. Taalas.