Land of Hope

Fed by drought, Africa's deserts are spreading, bringing with them hunger, disease and tribal conflict. But innovative policies can push the deserts back

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Photograph by Dominic Nahr for TIME

Under the dust A young Samburu warrior scoops water for cattle from a hole dug into a dry riverbed

Head north from Nairobi toward Mount Kenya and almost invariably you'll hit weather. Fog, rain, hail, even snow, all unusual for the equator but a blessing for Mount Kenya's farmers, who export coffee, roses, green beans and peas to Europe. Once you pass the mountain and descend onto the dusty Samburu plain, however, the weather evaporates. The first town you reach is Archer's Post, a collection of dusty shacks around a truck stop. From there, says elder Leadisimo Lehgalee, 69, the Samburu are forced to watch the daily deluge over Mount Kenya while enduring a drought on their land that began in 1997. Inevitably, jealousy and desperation turn to enmity. "We rob them," says Lehgalee. "And they rob us back. We raid each other's cattle, and we fight, we kill, and we die. That's the Samburu life."

The urge to appropriate what's on the other side of the fence rules much of the Sahel, the belt of scrub and semidesert that runs across Africa between the Sahara to the north and the plains to the south. The wars in Darfur and Somalia and between northern and southern Sudan all have roots in tribal competition for land and livestock. In northern Kenya, scores die every year in clashes over watering holes and cattle. And if all that weren't enough, lately the Sahara and the Sahel have attracted a new fearsome breed of outsiders, such as al-Qaeda and South America's cocaine cartels, who use the lawless wastes as sanctuaries and smuggling routes.

Africa's deserts, in short, are all kinds of dangerous. And climate change means the badlands are growing. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says that on the southern edge of the Sahara, an area the size of Somalia has become desert in the past 50 years. The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) says 14 African countries currently experience water scarcity or stress, a number that will rise to 25 by 2025. In a May 2008 report, the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) said 46% of Africa is threatened by land degradation. UNCCD executive secretary Luc Gnacadja concluded that desertification is "the greatest environmental challenge of our times."

The coming climate crisis will have a massive human cost. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that by 2020, "agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised." The effects of climate change, including rising sea levels and flooding as well as droughts and desertification, would put at risk of hunger 80 million to 120 million people, of whom 70% to 80% would be Africans, according to the IPCC. Food prices are likely to rise, and with them poverty and disease: mosquitoes and locusts thrive as temperatures go up.

As Samburu's neighbors know, tough places produce desperate, angry people. Unlivable places produce refugees. In a May 2005 study, Oxford and Duke University environmentalist Norman Myers calculated that there were 16 million "environmental refugees" in Africa in 1995 and predicted that number would double by this year. In April 2007, 11 former U.S. admirals and generals described a warming world as a "threat incubator" in a report for the think tank CNA Corp. The same month, the U.N. Security Council held a debate on how climate change can start wars.

That's the gloomy consensus: Africa, beset by conflict, hunger and disease, is being hit by a new disaster that combines them all — though Africa produces just 2% of global emissions. For some, that's a call to action: African governments will make desertification a key issue at the annual global Climate Change Conference, held this year in Cancún, Mexico, Nov. 29 to Dec. 10. For many, it's just more confirmation that Africa is a very sorry place. But for a few, that's plain wrong. They argue, paradoxically, that climate change may be the chance Africa needs.

Threat into Opportunity economists have a word for climate change: externality, meaning a by-product of economic activity not included on the balance sheet. It can be positive (a beekeepers' bees pollinating neighboring crops) or negative (pollution from a power station). If the beekeeper doesn't charge for pollination or the energy company doesn't pay a pollution tax, the price of honey or power does not reflect its true benefit or cost. Climate change is the mother of all negative externalities.

The problem is measuring it: How do you calculate the cost of climate change and then apportion it fairly among the world's businesses? Skeptics say rich governments and Big Industry can't or won't. Some, like Nicholas Stern, who produced the British government's Review of the Economics of Climate Change, say it can be done. But Stern's figures — which show that climate change could cut global gross domestic product by 20% if quick action is not taken — have been criticized as both over- and underestimates. And others argue that since climate change most affects the poor, programs to lift the developing world are the best way to fight its impact.

But what if the externality could be accounted for, in a way that helped the poor? What if the economic rule book could be rewritten so that fighting climate change became development? Pavan Sukhdev, a Deutsche Bank economist working with UNEP, is doing just that — or rather, as Sukhdev prefers to describe it, he's "rediscovering" some long-lost economic principles. In the 20th century, he says, two bad assumptions crept into the dismal science. The first was that public goods — things we consume together, like clean air and sewage-free seas — were subordinated to private goods, like cars and iPods, which are consumed individually. Second, we assumed natural capital like trees, grasslands, wind, sunshine, water and soil had no value because it was mostly free; we also assumed it was not as good as industrial capital at creating wealth. "Guess what," says Sukhdev. "That's some pretty bad economics." To make his case, he cites an effort to remove imported water-intensive plants from a drought-stricken part of South Africa; the project restored the water table, revived farming and gave paid work to hundreds. He also points to environmental activist Wangari Muta Maathai's Nobel Prize — winning tree-planting project on Mount Kenya, which improved farm productivity by boosting soil quality and water retention.

As a result of works by Sukhdev and others, UNEP executive director Achim Steiner can measure the financial benefits of saving the planet. New assessments indicate that "nature may represent between 50% and 90% of incomes in the developing world," he says. "In the past, these services have been invisible or near invisible in national and international accounts. This should and must change."

Two global agreements aim to put that right. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows developed-world businesses that need to offset their pollution to buy certified emission reductions, or carbon credits, to fund the reduction or sequestering of carbon dioxide in the developing world. The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (UN-REDD), launched in 2008, allows polluters to pay developing-world farmers to keep their trees, which store carbon dioxide as they grow. UNEP is working with scientists in Kenya, China, Niger and Nigeria to quantify how much carbon each ecosystem swallows — comparing the appetite of a rain forest with, say, that of a mangrove swamp — and when completed in 2012, those formulas will determine how much to pay each landowner. The UNEP's Steiner says "farming carbon" this way is far cheaper than new technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions at their source.

Estimates of how much the new market is worth vary wildly. The World Bank says carbon sequestration could be worth $1.5 billion a year to Africa, while Sukhdev reckons UN-REDD will be worth an eventual $30 billion to $110 billion a year globally. Manfred Kern of agritechnology company Bayer CropScience argues that the potential for monetizing natural assets is almost infinite. There is no reason, he says, that what works for trees should not also work for earth. "For the urbanized world, soil is just dirt, mud," Kern told a U.N. conference in Bonn in May 2008. "But soil is the source of our food, the very future of humanity. We must recognize that soil has a value higher than gold." What is clear is the potential. "It is essential that climate change be viewed as a major development opportunity for Africa," World Bank managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said last year.

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