What the climate crisis looks like in the Global South

What the climate crisis looks like in the Global South

Heatwaves, floods, droughts: The climate crisis is increasingly evident in Austria and Europe. Elsewhere, however, the effects are much more dramatic and the options for combating the crisis are fewer. Especially, because people from the countries of the Global South much less contributed to the problem. But they are already suffering from apocalyptic disasters such as firestorms, once-in-a-century floods, droughts and polluted lakes. Lukas Bayer spoke with seven people from Kenya, Uganda, Pakistan, Tuvalu and Australia for the Austrian Moment Magazin.

Canberra, Australia: firestorms and floods

„I’ve never seen anything so dark in my life. It was like the end of the world.“ Matt Dutkiewicz has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years. For a time, he was captain of his brigade, based just outside Australia’s capital, Canberra. Matt lost his home and car in the 2003 bushfires. But it were the fires of recent years that scare him the most.

In the 2019/2020 fire season, nearly 500 people died in Australia. More than 6,000 homes were destroyed and an estimated one and a half billion animals were killed. An area half the size of Germany burned. In some places, the flames soared so high that they could hardly be contained.

What usually worked for firefighters was ineffective this time. „We couldn’t do anything from 3 p.m. on. Every day these clouds of fire came“, Matt says. The flames then reach into the treetops. They create their own weather and storm system. Like a thunderstorm, he says. But worse. The smoke turns into a firestorm. Dust particles rub against each other, creating lightning and thunder. The particles explode. Sometimes a tornado is then triggered. The storm swirls the flames. Then the fires can spread in all directions. Predicting the fire behavior becomes impossible. So does putting out the fire. It took 240 days before „fire out“ could finally be reported in New South Wales.

Fire storms like the 2019/2020 season used to happen only once in a lifetime, Matt says. Then every day for several months. About two years later, Australia is already experiencing its second „millennium natural disaster“: first it were the flames, now the floods. Dozens of people have already died in them, 40,000 had to leave their homes, and even after weeks the rain on Australia’s east coast didn’t stop.

Matt knows: These are the effects of the climate crisis. They are no longer a theory. They are there.

Southern Kenya: drought and dryness

As a wealthy country, however, Australia still gets off comparatively lightly. The situation is different in Kenya. There, drought and dryness are causing problems for the people. „The rains should have come three weeks ago“, explains meteorologist Mana Omar. „The rainy season has been delayed.“ Mana belongs to the indigenous Maasai people, a pastoralist community in the arid and semid arid lands of southern Kenya. The Maasai rely on cattle ranching. According to stories, the rain god Ngai promised the Maasai all the cattle on earth. Without rain, the animals die. Many Maasai believe this is the will of God. „They don’t know what climate change is“, Mana says. She is trying to educate.

The situation has gotten worse in recent years. Water from nearby Lake Magadi is evaporating faster and faster, and rivers carry less water than they did a decade ago. „Without water, the children can’t go to school. It is unbearable what is happening to our people,“ Mana says. When she talks about the situation in southern Kenya, sadness and despair are palpable. And a word comes up that is also used by other interviewees: climate anxiety.

In view of the studies, it is easy to understand why people are afraid of the climate crisis. Many people feel the same way. A glance at the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is sufficient explanation. Policymakers around the world are doing little to alleviate this fear – apparently in Kenya, too. „Sometimes food is distributed,“ Mana says. But not much more. Still, she is combative: „I will not give up until the end is here. Whatever the end is.“

Lake Victoria, Kenya: Locusts and the „Green Plague“

16-year-old Rahmina Paulette also speaks about climate anxiety. Like Mana, she belongs to Kenya’s indigenous population and lives in the city of Kisumu. Kenya’s third largest city is located in the west, on the edge of Lake Victoria. Rahmina is involved with Fridays for Future MAPA. The organization provides a platform to those most affected by climate crisis. „Africa emits only three percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Yet we suffer the most,“ Rahmina says. „It’s depressing, frustrating and disgusting.“

What’s also disgusting is what’s happening at Lake Victoria. Africa’s largest freshwater lake is a major source of revenue for neighboring Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. There is a lot of fishing. Tourists and goods are shipped around. For many years, however, one fights against a water hyacinth plague. These plants find better and better conditions in the water, which is getting warmer due to the heating of the earth. The proliferating plants turn the water into a slimy, green soup. Fish get too little oxygen, boats can no longer get through the „green plague.“ „The number of fish has decreased by 30 to 40 percent. There used to be tens of thousands of species. Today there are maybe a few hundred,“ Rahmina says. She also says that because of other pollution, people can no longer swim in the lake.

That’s why she founded the „Let Lake Victoria Breathe Again“ campaign, which educates people about the state of the lake and finances itself by selling products made from water hyacinths.

The climate crisis is also leading to more frequent and intense heavy rains, resulting in flooding several times a year. More than 30 million people live on the shores of the lake. Many then have to leave their homes. And when the water recedes, the locusts are there. Hundreds of millions eat their way through the crops until there is little left of what is already scarce.

Uganda: Famine, water scarcity and a dying forest

„I’m over 40 years old now. I’ve never experienced temperatures this high.“ Mustafa Gerima used to be a biology teacher. He now devotes all his time to climate and environmental protection. A glance at his Twitter profile reveals how the climate crisis is hitting Uganda: it hardly rains anymore, the soil is getting drier and drier, the harvest is meager, and the next water point is a six-hour walk away. The country is also facing the threat of famine.

When it does rain, it is usually far too much. This puts a strain on the shea nut trees. Many people use the oil extracted from the fruit for cooking, as soap or for skin care. In addition, the trees are a cultural heritage and a „sacred place,“ as Mustafa explains. But they have also come under massive pressure from illegal logging. Uganda has lost more than 60 percent of its forest land since 1990. „The trees are being cut down and burned as charcoal, which is harmful to the climate,“ Mustafa says. People lack affordable alternatives for cooking and heating, he says.

To draw attention to the problem, Mustafa began to devote his life to it. He quit as a teacher in 2016 and walks enormous distances in protest. The first time, from Uganda’s capital Kampala to the small town of Arua, 475 kilometers away. „I compare the hardship of the hike to the hardship of losing that precious tree,“ he says. Last year, Mustafa set out again. He hiked 664 kilometers in 19 days to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, home of the world’s highest environmental authority. There he found an astonishing amount of support for his project. Together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), eight million seedlings of shea nut trees are now being planted.

Mombasa, Kenya: unbearably hot

„Sometimes it’s unbearable at night. You can’t sleep then.“ Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya. It is located on the Indian Ocean. More than a million people live here, and the number is rising. One of them is 23-year-old student Dorcas Wakio. As early as seven o’clock in the morning, it is almost impossible to leave the house, she says. It’s not much better inside, she says.

The average annual temperature in Mombasa is over 30 degrees Celsius, with peaks of up to 50 degrees. Even at night, temperatures rarely drop below 20 degrees. What is compensated for elsewhere in the world with air conditioning units is not an option here. There would be a lack of money to keep the houses cool. The heat is becoming increasingly deadly, especially in countries of the Global South, due to the climate crisis. „I live in a place where people and animals are dying, where there is no food,“ Dorcas says. „Sometimes it’s so sad.“

In the meantime, she accepts that she was born here. She founded several initiatives, frees animals and beaches from plastic waste and teaches children about the climate crisis. The hotter it gets, the less often they can attend school, Dorcas says. That’s why she helps plant trees around the schools. „So that at least in five to 10 years, the children will have shade.“

Tuvalu: a dissapearing island

„We have already lost two islands to the sea,“ says Bernhard Kato. And there will be more. Bernhard is 25 years old and lives in Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu. The island is home to 11,000 people. It lies in the South Pacific between Hawaii and Australia. No point is higher than 4.5 meters above sea level. This is rising. „Meanwhile, our land is flooded every day,“ Bernhard tells us. „The water comes mainly from below, from the canals.“

Cyclones also come two or three times a year. The storm surges then sweep away everything in their path. „I remember Cyclone Pam in 2015, which dug up a lot of graves. The bones of our ancestors were floating everywhere,“ Bernhard says. Everything was contaminated, he says. The harvest had to be thrown away, and the collected rainwater could not be drunk. Tuvalu has no rivers or streams. The people depend on the rain. One month without rainfall is already catastrophic. Often people do not shower so that at least the children have enough water. The island could soon disappear.

Balochistan, Pakistan: occupied, flooded and exploited

If you want to get to the bottom of the causes of the climate crisis, it is also worth taking a look at the politically embattled region of Baluchistan. It is located in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. In the 2010 floods, more than 1,700 people died here and two million houses were destroyed.

Yusuf Baloch lived in one of them. „In the middle of the night, I had to leave my home. I was six years old and knew nothing about the climate crisis at the time,“ he says. In the meantime, Yusuf lives in London at the age of 18. He no longer sees any prospects in his home country. Not only because of the floods, droughts and hot summers.

„We are exploited by three countries and the government oppresses the people,“ Yusuf says. Activism is not tolerated, he adds. It is not uncommon for people to simply disappear. Whether they are demonstrating for the climate or for Balochistan’s independence. The region is rich in mineral resources such as gold and copper. Licenses for mining are coveted and contested. In addition, many forests are being cut down and coal-fired power plants are being built – all big drivers of the climate crisis. „The real cause of the climate crisis is exploitation and colonialism,“ says Yusuf. Indeed, countries in the Global North are responsible for more than two-thirds of historical emissions. To do so, they have violently exploited the Global South, which is now suffering especially.

Climate Justice: What now?

„Climate justice is not just about reducing emissions and planting trees,“ Yusuf therefore says. It is about much more: the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, an end to resource exploitation, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.

16-year-old Rahmina Paulette considers grassroots movements to be particularly important in the fight against the climate crisis. These would often achieve much more without bureaucracy than large organizations. Money must be spent in the right places, and people must be directly involved in decision-making processes, Dorcas Wakio also suggests. Those affected must be listened to, real representation must be given – and massive greenhouse gas emissions must finally be stopped.

A prerequisite for this is that people understand the scope of the climate crisis. Mana Omar has therefore begun collecting climate stories. „We want to tell the often unheard stories of the communities living there,“ says the meteorologist.


This article first appeared in the Austrian magazine Moment.at.

Picture: Dorcas Wakio (private)