Under African skies

By Bryan Walker 03/11/2010

Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting has been in Mali, learning how it is affected by climate change. In an article published on Sunday she wrote of her visit to the remote town of Anakila where an enormous encroaching sand dune threatens.

’For years now, the elders explain, they have been worried by climate change. Disrupted rain patterns, shifts in winds have no parallel in collective memory; they notice how it is prompting changes in the behaviour of animals and birds. But all of these anxieties are dwarfed by the sand dune now looming above their town — the result of those drier, fierce winds and erratic, intense rainfall.’

She describes the action of the dune and the measures the people are taking to try to contain it. But it’s difficult to see it as other than a losing battle.

’The ecological niche in which they have built their lives has always been full of uncertainties — and often hardship — but now the niche on which they have built cultures of great sophistication and resilience is shrinking beneath them as desert threatens.’

Bunting comments that it is in remote places like this that climate change will hit first and hardest, in cultures built on a deep understanding of their environment.

’Anakila’s residents are the canaries down the mine, their experience a foretaste of an Earth hostile to human inhabitation. But their experience of threat, potential devastation and loss of livelihood is discounted and ignored. No dunes are threatening Manchester.’

She goes on to discuss the requirement of environmental justice that rich countries should assist affected populations in poor countries to adapt to the changes that are upon them, noting however the dismal likelihood that funds for climate adaptation will simply be poached from development aid budgets.

The deniers were out in force in the comments that followed the article, and are still going strong as I write this. No surprises in what they have to say. They have no difficulty brushing aside the notion that something exceptional is occurring. These are perennial problems not related to human-caused climate change which isn’t happening anyway. The population increase in Mali is the reason for the problem. The aid organisations are making a big song and dance out of natural events in order to get more of our money. African governments are corrupt. And so on…and on.

These kinds of arguments will continue to be advanced until doomsday by those who have committed themselves to the view that human-caused climate change isn’t happening. But the experience of the people in the town of Anakila is consonant with the expected impacts of climate change in their region. Sure it may have been worsened by deforestation and sure a rapidly growing population is not the best armoury against a diminishing environment. But the global warming which is basically driving the changes is not within the power of the local population to affect. It is within the power of the major industrialised and industrialising nations. Need those nations wait until they see grave impacts within their own populations, which they undoubtedly will before too much longer? Articles such as Bunting’s are early casualty reports of the damage inflicted on humanity at large by the emissions we continue to pour into the atmosphere.  We owe assistance to those already suffering the effects. And if we have any sense we will also take a warning from what is happening to them.

The Guardian has an accompanying photo gallery of the Anakila dune here, and some blogs of Bunting’s visits to other parts of the country here and here and here. She does a fine job of taking the reader right to where she is. Serious and responsible journalism at its best.

[Paul Simon & Miriam Makeba]