French Researcher Traces Economic and Demographic Shifts in Africa to Climate Change

Interviewed in Les Echos, French international relations researcher Thierry Vircoulon highlights the economic importance of climate change in Africa, focusing in particular on its impact on demographic shifts, including the contribution of climate refugees to rapid and unplanned urbanisation.

Article source: "L'expansion des zones urbaines en Afrique n'est ni planifiée, ni contrôlée", Michel De Grandi, Les Echos, 19/01/2020

South Africa is sinking even further into economic and budgetary crisis. Is it likely to recover in the near future?

This crisis has been going on for twenty years now. All the governments that have come to power have tried to straighten out the situation and all have failed. This is no surprise, given that the origins of this crisis are political. As long as the interests of the ruling party are the main obstacle to reform, nothing will change. The business community expects strong measures; state-owned companies are highly indebted and heading for bankruptcy. The most iconic case is that of Eskom, the state-owned electricity supplier, whose regular power cuts have thwarted economic development. But the national airline company’s difficulties might also be mentioned. However, one positive point is worth noting: in November, the government presented a new energy policy based on the development of renewable energies. In a country where 95% of the electricity is currently derived from coal, this gradual shift is worth praising.

The Pretoria authorities provided mass social housing in the 1990s and thereby encouraged settlement in urban areas. Could this model be replicated across the continent?

The South African authorities acted primarily with the aim of providing decent housing for people who had previously lived in townships with poor sanitation. This move did not, in and of itself, encourage urbanisation, which had existed long before. Today in South Africa it is clear that the four major cities are continuing to expand and some smaller provincial cities are acting as a drain on the rural population. Urbanisation across the continent is, in my view, better described as ‘shanty town growth’ (bidonvilisation) inasmuch as the urban sprawl is unplanned and out of control. Widening inequality on the African continent largely accounts for this phenomenon. But, as it stands, I cannot name a single country which has successfully managed its urban growth.

While urbanisation is a major challenge for the continent, global heating is another. Are there already visible consequences?

Global heating is an issue in its own right. Beside the rapidly changing demographics, the phenomenon of climate refugees is already a reality. Southern Chad is witnessing the arrival of populations from the north and the centre of the country who have migrated south because of a lack of resources they mainly come from the Sahel strip, on the fringes of the Saraha. It is above all the livestock herders who migrate, which in turn causes hostility and conflict between communities. The other visible phenomenon concerns water supply. In Cape Town the reservoirs nearly dried up in 2018 and the city got dangerously close to implementing its "Day Zero" emergency rationing plan. Countries which are traditionally classified as arid, such as Zimbabwe and Zambia, are now alternating between periods of severe drought and torrential rains. In either case, these kinds of extreme conditions are harmful to agriculture.


Translated by Raphaël Delattre and Anthony Mercier

Editing by Sam Trainor

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