Africa's future: driving forces


The development of scenarios is based on the identification and articulation of some underlying factors – the driving forces. Driving forces are elements that cause change to occur and their unfolding and interaction is responsible for the trends envisaged in each scenario. Some driving forces are not directly controllable and these have to be addressed in the scenario. Controlled forces are those that can be shaped and these form the basis for the recommendations and means of implementation prescribed in the scenarios. Driving forces are sufficiently strong to direct the course of growth of the society and change in environment. They set the initial course for development, and their impacts are potent enough to change the course of development. Therefore, they define departure points for the environmental issues that they influence. Their effects can be short and sharp, or long-lasting. Furthermore, driving forces operate at different scales of intensity and magnitude, reverse direction, appear or disappear as the case may be. The major driving forces defined for the Africa Environment Outlook 2 (AEO-2) are demographics, health, economics, social issues, culture, technology, governance, peace and conflict. (An overview of these is given in Chapter 1: The Human Dimension and the relationships between them is further developed in Interlinkages: environment and policy web in Africa). To these drivers we may add climate change and natural disasters. Depending on the environmental or development issues, some of the driving forces may take the form of pressures and/or responses. This section highlights how each of these may influence environment and development in Africa, and establishes their significance for the scenarios. The specific influence of the driving forces on selected issues is discussed subsequently under the four themes identified for AEO-2 scenario analysis (land, freshwater, atmosphere, and coastal and marine environments). The overall trends and implications of these drivers for the state of the environment are considered in Section 2: Environment State-and-Trends: 20-Year Retrospective. As the driving forces have not changed since the AEO-1 report this discussion draws extensively on that report.


caption Figure 1: Population trends in the various sub-regions
(Source: UNEP 2005; data from UN population Division 2003)

Population remains a major factor for the growth of societies and a significant driving force for development and the future state of the environment. Changes in population numbers over time, demographic characteristics, including migration and urbanization patterns, health, and levels of skill are important considerations. Some of these characteristics are reflected in United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) human development indices (HDI).

The population of the region continues to grow rapidly (see Figure 1), changing from 221 million in 1950 to about 786 million in 2000. At a rate of 2.1 percent annually, Africa is the world’s fastest-growing region and it is expected to have a population of 1 300 million in 2025. This phenomenal rise in population is due to high fertility rates and improved health, as a result of, among other things, improved medical access. This growth will continue to exert pressure on the environment in many ways.


caption Figure 2: Africa's economically active population
(Source: UNEP 2005; data from ILO 2005)

The population of Africa is characterized by a large number of persons in the dependency age cohort of 1 to 14 years, and this has multiple implications for ongoing population growth and the direction and pace of development. Although estimates vary, about 43 percent of the population is under the age of 15 and only 2.5 percent over 65. The 15-24 age group numbered 149 million in 1998, constituting about 20 percent of the total African population, and represents a workforce bulge; this can be the basis for more investment, greater labour productivity and rapid economic development (see Figure 2). However, youth unemployment is a major problem. At 21 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and 22.8 percent in Northern Africa, the unemployment rate for youths aged 15-24 was twice that of the overall labour force in 2003. Therefore, if Africa does not generate more employment and opportunities, and invest in skills and capacity-building this group could place tremendous strain on the economy as well as environmental resources. Investment in human resources development is essential, and could help attract foreign direct investment (FDI).

Rapid population growth and changes in demographic characteristics put pressure on African countries to improve standards of living and to provide essential social, economic and environmental services. These factors also limit their capacity to deal with the problem of poverty. Further, in the absence of cooperation, rapid population growth rates may lead to political and social conflicts among different ethnic, religious and social groups over environmental resources. However, in the long run, population growth rates are expected to decline, for multiple reasons including the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the fact that African countries are addressing issues of population growth in a purposeful and concerted way. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), for example, population growth rate between 1975 and 2003 was 2.7 percent, and it is expected to slow to 2.2 percent for the period 2003-15.

As discussed in Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book) Chapter 1: The Human Dimension, Africa is also the fastest urbanizing region of the world. In 2000 the urban population of 318 million was only 38.2 percent of the total population, whereas, by 2025 the urban population is expected to have risen to 681 million, representing 50.67 percent of the total population. If the shift in spatial distribution of population is not carefully addressed, governments will see the multiplication of poorly-serviced informal urban settlements which are the cradle of crime and in which human vulnerabilities are accelerated by limited access to water and sanitation as well as other social services. This would also result in environmental problems like pollution due to inferior waste management.


Health is a major issue and a critical driving force. It is particularly important in a developing country context.

Since independence many African countries have made significant improvements in health care. This includes expanding access to primary health care, increased spending on the health sector and addressing socioeconomic inequities associated with access to quality health care systems. Across Africa, there were improvements in key health care indicators, such as infant mortality rates and life expectancy. Across SSA, the 1970s saw significant increases in life expectancy, from an average 44 years to more than 50 years. The period of the 1980s and 1990s, however, witnessed cutbacks in health budgets and privatization of health services. These policies exacerbated poverty and thus provided a fertile ground for the spread of infectious diseases and nutrition-related illnesses. Life expectancy was 50 in 1990 and dropped to 46 in 2002. The current health priorities will continue to influence decisions that impinge on the environment and overall economic development.

Health as a driving force has a direct relationship with environmental management and development. As demonstrated by the impact of HIV/AIDS and malaria, among other diseases, ill health has economic costs, and contributes to increasing poverty. The two most debilitating diseases in Africa, malaria and HIV/AIDS, remain major health concerns. HIV/AIDS affects the economically active population, consequently negatively affecting the potential to realize development and environmental management goals. Given the links between these sectors, as discussed in Chapter 1: The Human Dimension, investments in environmental management may help achieve the health-related targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Economic drivers

caption Figure 3: GDP growth by ECA sub-region
(Source: ECA 2005)

Although Africa is richly endowed with natural and human resources, it remains relatively underdeveloped. Nevertheless, there are significant indicators of improved economic performance. Economic growth rates have been improving steadily. In 2004, Africa grew at 5.1 percent, an increase from 3.7 percent in 2003, and a significant improvement over the average annual growth rates of 2.6 percent between 1990 and 2003. However, this has not translated into a decrease in the percentage of people living on less than a dollar a day. This failure to ensure that economic growth contributes to poverty reduction may be attributed to various factors, including an inadequate rate of growth, low labour absorption into the primary growth sectors, and inequitable distribution of the opportunities created by growth. The lack of access to other secure sources of income compounds the incidence of poverty. If these patterns continue, then even with improved economic growth, Africa will not be able to meet key development targets and improve human well-being. This will in turn perpetuate the poverty-environmental degradation cycle.

The economies of most countries are characterized by dependence on the extraction and export of natural resources, and thus by a high level of vulnerability to global economic fluctuations, especially in mineral and agricultural commodity prices. Chapter 8: Interlinkages: The Environment and Policy Web considers how global policy and practice in trade, aid and investment affect economic performance in Africa.

Many economies reflect a dualism, with a relatively small monetized structure, consisting of such sectors as government, commerce and industry, and a large subsistence and informal sector. Low levels of industrialization, characterized by relatively little value adding, have environmental and development implications that impact on overall levels of human wellbeing. For example, although industrial emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are low, the per capita emissions per unit of industrial and manufactured output are relatively high because of the relatively old and inefficient equipment and technologies used by industry.

caption Figure 4: Gross Domestic Product by sub-region
(Source: UNEP 2005; data from World Bank 2003)

Africa’s share in world trade remains small. It is being met with fierce competition from the other regions of the world that have faster and more sustained economic growth, particularly from Southeast Asia. Africa’s share of world exports declined from about 6 per cent in 1980 to approximately 2 percent in 2003. However, in 2004 trade performance improved and exports continued to grow at high rates: 8 percent in volume and 23.5 percent in value. This is primarily linked to the growth of the oil sector. In other sectors Africa has continued to be severely marginalized in the global economy as it continues to face formidable barriers to northern markets. Given the small size of domestic markets, exports are essential for increased economic growth. However, trade has continued to be on unfair terms, primarily as a result of the rules governing world trade, which were set largely by the industrialized countries over the course of the 1986-94 Uruguay Round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks.

The economic underdevelopment of Africa partly reflects its history of economic and political colonization, and partly the economic and other policies adopted by governments since independence. The latter include wage and price controls, widespread subsidies of basic commodities, a burgeoning civil service, fixed currency exchange rates that lead to overvaluation of currencies, high tax rates, and disincentives for potential external investors. In the 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) on some of the countries, often as a condition for being granted loans. The features of these programmes vary somewhat from country to country but common elements include:

  • Strict controls on public expenditure;
  • Reforms of the structure and functioning of the civil service;
  • Reductions in barriers to trade;
  • The removal of domestic subsidies;
  • Opening up of the economy to external investment; and
  • Allowing the value of the national currency to be determined by the operations of the market.

As discussed in Interlinkages: environment and policy web in Africa, notwithstanding the appearance of burgeoning economies, SAPs led to rising prices of basic commodities, unemployment, increasing poverty and the breakdown in health-care systems. These impacts had significant environmental and social implications.

Debt, too, remains a major challenge. (See Interlinkages: environment and policy web in Africa.) The burden of debt repayment is enormous, resulting in the diversion of funding away from, among other things, public services. Some countries faced with a huge debt burden spend all their earnings on servicing their debts rather than providing basic social services. A combination of internal and external factors continues to perpetuate the debt problem. Debt cancellation by the Group of 8 (G8) nations in favour of 13 selected poor countries (by the beginning of 2006) is still viewed as too insignificant to have an impact on environment and development in the region.

Social issues

Levels of human well-being affect the range of opportunities available to people and the kinds of choices they are able to make. Health and education, as well as access to material assets, directly affect capabilities and, in turn, impact on the environment. African nations rank, on average, lower than any other continent on the Human Development Index (HDI). In recent years there has been a decline in the quality of life, as measured by the HDI, in many African countries.

Although there has been an improvement in quality of life across the globe, Africa has lagged behind in some key areas:

  • Half of the population in Africa lack access to health services. Health challenges are monumental in a region with the highest rates of fertility, maternal and childhood mortality, malnutrition, two-thirds of world’s known AIDS cases, 90 percent of world’s yearly malaria fatalities, and where half of the female population is illiterate.
  • In rural Africa, about 50 percent of the population are without access to adequate water supply, and 70 percent are without access to adequate sanitation. In urban areas, about 20 percent and 40 percent of the population are without access to adequate water supply and sanitation respectively.
  • Although there has been significant progress in education in Africa over the last two decades, there is much to be done. Primary school enrolment in 16 countries is below 60 percent, and there are more children between the age of 6 and 11 out of school than was the case in the 1990s. The average adult illiteracy stands at 43 percent.
  • Life expectancy at birth in SSA has been reduced from 50 in 1990 to 46 in 2002.

The incidence of poverty and the pervasiveness of inequities, as discussed in the [[Human dimension of development in Africa, remain major challenges for development and sustainable environmental management. Poverty is both a cause and effect of environmental degradation. Poverty can be reduced by either increasing economic growth or by reducing inequity. For Africa to halve its poverty level by 2015, as envisaged under the MDG, it will need to achieve an average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of 7 percent.

Gender inequity remains a challenge. Although African women have made tremendous progress over the past four decades, there is still a significant gap between rhetorical commitment to gender equity and actual actions adopted to address this. Most African countries continue to rank very low on the gender-related development index (GDI) although there has been some improvement in gender empowerment measure (GEM). GDI focuses on levels of development including life expectancy, literacy, education and income, whereas GEM considers the extent of social inclusion through measures related to parliamentary seats held by women, the percentage of female professional and technical workers, and the ratio of female to male income. Important gains have been made in political representation, with Africa leading the world with the highest proportion of women in parliament. Nevertheless, economic and legal barriers associated with social discrimination continue to prevent women in Africa from improving their status and productivity, and from achieving their full potential. In many countries women continue to face the denial of basic human rights and are often victims of violent crime.

At independence, most African countries inherited a system where government was absolutely responsible for providing basic services and amenities almost at no direct costs to consumers. Over the years, the ability of government to meet the demands for providing basic services and utilities has decreased tremendously and the effect has been one of aggravating social conditions. Much has been said as to what is the right strategy for providing services in developing countries, particularly in Africa. The privatization of public services is a strategy being promoted in an increasing number of African countries. This involves the reduction of public subsidies and, in some cases, the introduction of cost-recovery measures. This development, while having some benefits, could present major causes for concern. For instance, access to clean water is a vital public health necessity and a basic human right and its privatization may lead to reduced access to safe water for poor communities. In Ghana, the recent moves towards water privatization are opposed by CSOs for this reason. Already, according to the Ghanaian Ministry of Health, half of all clinic visits in Ghana are due to water-borne illnesses. Privatization may further reduce access to safe and affordable water in urban areas.


Cultural norms and values shape people’s perceptions, aspirations and attitudes, and therefore their actions. Culture influences choice of livelihood activities, with direct and indirect influence on the pace of environmental change and development.

Among the many factors shaping culture are ethnicity and religion. As in some other parts of the world, religion in Africa has served as a strong unifying force in some areas, and as a potentially divisive one in others. Ethnic tensions in many areas, driven by historical animosities, themselves often exacerbated by religious, economic and social tensions, are also potentially divisive and inhibitory to development and may precipitate conflict over natural resources. However, this diversity is not always divisive. Chapter 12: Environment for Peace and Regional Cooperation considers this sensitive subject and how the environment can promote cooperation, which in turn may enhance good social relations (including social coherence) and other aspects of human well-being.

Africa, with its diversity of peoples and languages, has a rich and strong traditional culture that can serve both as a bulwark against outside influences and as a conduit through which new ideas can be assimilated. Historically, indigenous systems of social governance, provision of services, maintenance of social cohesion, and even economic development, were based on the norms these cultures followed. But culture is not static, especially in this era of increasing economic and political globalization. People around the world are being increasingly exposed to the norms and values of other cultures, sometimes creating tensions within their own culture but in many instances resulting in substantial modification or replacement of some of its elements.

Other cultures have fundamentally changed African society. While western cultures dominate many economic and political spheres, at the more local level traditional norms often prevail. At the sub-national level, governance is increasingly shaped by “democratic ethics” intermingled with traditional values. The traditional support systems, which served as social securities for the aged, the homeless, the sick and the poor, have generally been displaced. However, these have not been replaced by efficient public structures. Similarly, in many places traditional environmental management systems have also been displaced or significantly modified. In some instances new environmental values have begun to emerge and shape governance and management.

Consumption patterns increasingly mirror westernstyle consumer culture, and to a large extent this is a result of a shift to market-based development and globalization. This influences both trade and investment patterns, particularly by creating a demand for imported consumer goods while, at the same time, serving as an incentive for some of the multinational corporations to enter local markets directly through investment, partnerships or take-overs. In some instances these increasing consumer demands produce very direct threats to the environment, as discussed in Section 2: Environment State-and-Trends: 20-Year Retrospective and in relation to chemicals in Chapter 11.

As a driving force, western culture continues to play a central role in development in Africa. Changing lifestyles create demand for environmental goods-and-services that occasions change in environmental and natural resources exploitation. Increasing consumerism, for instance, can be expected to lead to overexploitation of resources to meet increasing wants. Depending on the measures of control put in place by societies, these developments may or may not be beneficial to the environment. Nevertheless, this consumer culture may be expected to reach a peak where people begin to see the differences between needs and wants, and lead therefore to a return to healthier and more holistic lifestyles that focus on the overall context of human wellbeing and the relationship to the environment.


African economies during pre-colonial times were able to avoid any large-scale environmental degradation, partly because the population was small and partly because the demands on the economy were small. More importantly, the technology was appropriate and adequate, as the people learnt over centuries to adapt systems of extraction of natural resources to be commensurate with the dictates of the environment. In contrast, modern economic practices have introduced increased demands on human and natural resources and the available technology has proved inadequate. Africa needs to improve and diversify the range of technological options available if the demands of change are to be met. New technologies often come with new costs, including high demands for fuel and increased pollution, and new risks, such as uncertainty about the environmental and human health impacts of genetically modified (GM) crops and chemicals. Chapter 1: The Human Dimension considers the developments in the pharmaceutical sector, and the potential economic opportunities investment in genetic resource R & D can bring for Africa, particularly in rural communities. Section 3: Emerging Challenges considers the challenges and opportunities associated with GM crops (Chapter 9) and chemicals (Chapter 11).

In the 20th century, Africa’s role in the development of science and technology remained small. Historical factors contributed to this. Colonization inhibited the development of indigenous technology and destabilized some of the existing processes of technical growth. Indigenous manufacturing capability was deliberately undermined to facilitate European exports for which captive markets were created. Further, Africa has not only been a user of technologies developed in the west, but has also served as a dumping ground for obsolete technologies abandoned in the west. Africa remains on the technological fringes, and in the absence of largescale investment in this area this is not likely to change. Africa in general has a high dependence on imported technology. As the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) noted, addressing this is critical if development targets are to be met. Stimulating R & D in this sector requires not only an improved economic environment but also better infrastructure and efficient communications systems. Africa needs to increase investment in this area, and focus on the development of appropriate technologies. The growth of ICT has been an important driver of economic growth and the diversification of opportunity in the economies of Southeast Asia. Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book) Chapter 1: The Human Dimension describes the current state of ICT and considers the opportunities this sector can bring for development. The Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) technology offers significant opportunities. The introduction of GSM in many African countries and the deregulation of the telecommunications sector have energized private companies to embark on aggressive telecommunications development programmes across the region. This trend is expected to become a major catalyst for development through improvements in information access. Modern ICT will assist the emergence of micro-power technologies to revolutionize energy sources. While many African countries continue to see modern information technology and industrialization as principal agents for economic development, some countries will recognize the importance of sequencing in harnessing technology and integrate these into the process of development including environmental management. With the introduction of cleaner fuels, swift transition to renewable resources and greater concern for the environment, the impact of industrialization and technological advancement on the environment is reduced to the barest minimum.

Institutions and governance

"In 2002, the AU noted that Africa was losing $150,000 million a year to corruption, which increases the costs of goods by as much as 20 percent." NEF 2005

Institutions refers generally to the set of instruments through which people, living in a state and believing in common core values, govern themselves and includes policy, laws, rules and regulations as well as custom. Governance refers to the processes through which these institutions are implemented. Governance is based on values and principles that a society – local, national, regional or global – holds. Governance invariably relies on interaction between the state, civil society and the private sector, although the relative roles of these sectors differ depending on the priorities and values of a given social system. For example, the extent of public participation in decision making is often a reflection of this.

Governance takes place within all domains including the economic, political and administrative, and its form affects development, including the potential for market efficiency, sustainable environmental management and the realization of rights. Good governance practices improve the potential for economic growth and create new opportunities for development and improving human well-being. Such measures may include elevating environmental management as a policy priority and allocating the necessary resources for the implementation of measures, assigning accountability for failures, and facilitating participation from civil society. It may, as proposed in Chapter 8: Interlinkages: The Environment and Policy Web, require linking the economic, political and administrative aspects of governance more directly with environmental policy and practice, and developing appropriate legal and management tools to ensure this. Or, as discussed in Chapter 9: Genetically Modified Crops, demand establishing better integration between science, public values and policy. It may also, as discussed in Environment for Peace and Regional Cooperation, require improved regional cooperation, greater transparency and higher levels of accountability to avoid conflict and promote the fairer distribution of benefits, and costs, associated with environmental use.

It is impossible to achieve sustainable economic development without good governance, and peace and security are essential aspects of this. In many countries poor governance practices have resulted in military coup d’états and electoral systems that were essentially symbolic and not designed to allow for changes in government. Military interventions have led to various forms of instability and the rise of insurgencies, riots and ethnic strife and rivalries. Military costs have placed an enormous strain on economies. Corruption, and the embezzlement and externalization of public funds remain critical problems, with estimates that such externalization amounts to as much as a quarter of GDP. In 2002, the AU noted that Africa was losing $150,000 million per year to corruption, which increases the costs of goods by as much as 20 percent.

However, as the new millennium approached, once again “winds of change” blew across Africa, as people in many countries, as well as at the regional level, demanded greater accountability from their elected leaders. They called for fairer and more transparent public processes, and respect for human rights. With increasing social consciousness, new forms of organizations have emerged. Civil society organizations have emerged in large numbers and their influence is steadily increasing. These serve as important checks on government.

As poor governance practices have been called into question, citizens have demanded the right to be involved in decisions that affect their well-being, including in the environmental sector. Local participation in environmental decision making has increased considerably. The opportunities increased public participation presents for development and good policy making are discussed throughout this report. Chapter 1: The Human Dimension examines the increasing role of civil society in the environmental sector and the chapters in Section 2: Environment State-and-Trends: 20-Year Retrospective consider the opportunities such involvement creates in specific environmental sectors, including forests, freshwater and coastal and marine environments. Section 3: Emerging Challenges considers the importance of public participation in developing policy responses in the critical areas of GM crops, invasive alien species, chemicals and conflict.

The opportunity for improving governance is constrained by several factors including weak states, weak democratic processes that feature personalized power and corruption, and inequity. Inequity and poverty shape the capacity to participate effectively in public life, as is evident from the marginal role that women still play in governance.

Nevertheless, in facing these governance challenges, a wide range of responses have been adopted by governments at the regional, sub-regional and national levels. At the regional level, these responses include the AU Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) developed by New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). For a full discussion of the APRM see Chapter 8: Interlinkages: The Environment and Policy Web. All efforts are made to reduce conflicts in countries where they presently exist through assistance to provide basic services and through the breaking of the poverty trap.

Peace and conflict

"Since 1970, more than 30 wars have been fought in Africa, and the vast majority of them were intra-state in origin." Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN 1998)

Conflict is a major driver of environmental change, and it has significant implications for development and human well-being. Many of the conflicts in the region are internal and cross-border disagreements often relate to natural resource use. The challenges posed by conflict are discussed fully in chapter 12: Environment for Peace and Regional Cooperation.

As discussed in that chapter, the implications of conflict are far-reaching:

  • Conflicts have led directly and indirectly to the deaths of many thousands of civilians. In 1998, Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), noted that, “since 1970, more than 30 wars have been fought in Africa, and the vast majority of them were intra-state in origin” (UN 1998).
  • Conflicts affect how the environment is used. For example, landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) make land inaccessible and pose a physical threat to people and animals.
  • Conflict diverts financial resources away from development for the purchase of weapons and other military equipment.
  • Conflict threatens human well-being by increasing food insecurity, ill health, violence and crime. It may also affect education and health opportunities. It reduces access to essential material assets, including natural resources, which are the basis of livelihoods and well-being. This may include access to land, markets and information.
  • Conflict results in the destruction of infrastructure, and the deterioration of services due to neglect is common. Infrastructure such as roads, bridges, markets, clinics and schools are often targeted by combatants.
  • Conflict results in displacement of people, and the breakdown of social cohesion. Cross-border movement of people impacts on host countries, for example in terms of increased demands on natural resources. Refugee populations are among the most vulnerable social groups in the world.

The impacts of conflict cannot be assessed in quantitative terms alone. For example, there are unknown opportunity costs in terms of possible avenues for development which are blocked by insecurity. Conflicts can result in the transformation of the social, political and economic space, and often have the result of “militarizing” many aspects of life. Violence occurs not just between combatants, but also in the domestic sphere: the pressures of life during wartime often result in an increase in gender-based violence and the abuse of children. Conflicts and peace breaches make it more difficult to achieve cooperation, including cooperation over the environment. Women, in particular, become vulnerable to attack as they access natural resources such as firewood and freshwater in periods of war. The cultural fabric that constitutes communities can be torn apart. Management of natural resources is an important part of this cultural fabric, and one which is also vital for the provision of basic needs such as food, warmth and shelter.

The regional impacts of conflict are in many ways an incentive for regional solutions and cooperation, and there have been multiple regional responses that seek to improve cooperation around the environment. The AU, along with sub-regional bodies, plays a critical role in peace-building and cooperation. There is enhanced openness on the part of many African governments to discuss problems of conflict which were previously treated as “internal” and to seek regional or international solutions.

Natural disasters and climate change

A disaster is said to occur when abnormal or infrequent hazardous events impact on vulnerable communities, causing substantial damage, disruption and casualties, and leaving the affected communities unable to function normally without external assistance. A disaster is therefore a severe disruption of the survival and livelihood systems of a society or community, resulting from their vulnerability to the impact of one or a combination of hazards, and involving loss of life and/or property on a scale which overwhelms the capacity of those affected to cope unaided. Natural hazards may be hydrometeorological or geophysical and include floods, droughts, wild-fires, storms, cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides. Some of these hazards can lead to disasters. Disasters, whether natural, technological, biological or arising from internal conflicts within nations, are often shaped by anthropological factors.

Africa faces food insecurity that is a result of a combination of natural hazards and human factors. Climate change and variability are being driven by various anthropological factors including increased demands for energy, and have impacts on environment and development, as well as land productivity. These impacts are discussed throughout Section 2: Environment State-and-Trends: 20-Year Retrospective and more specifically in Atmospheric resources in Africa and Land resources in Africa. Global warming will lead to higher temperatures estimated to be between 0.2 and 0.5 ºC per decade for Africa. It is also likely that extreme events such as El Niño are being experienced more frequently, and have become more intense, causing wide-ranging agricultural, hydrological, ecological, economic and health impacts. Land degradation and vulnerability to erosion is directly linked to climatic factors. Extreme climatic events also lead to natural disasters like drought and floods which directly affect the health of the environment.

One effective response to address human vulnerability to environmental change is to strengthen mechanisms for early warning. Many actions can be taken to protect life and property if warning is received in time. While certain threats are inherently unpredictable, many of those arising from threats from environmental degradation and mismanagement, and from human activities, can now be anticipated with some precision. Early warning capacities are increasing steadily with technological advances in environmental observing, assessment and communications. Examples include the cyclone early warning systems that have been established in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) islands.

Further reading




This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
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Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.








Programme, U. (2013). Africa's future: driving forces. Retrieved from