Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Vulnerable to climate change, Cameroon tackles the problem head-on

Though particularly vulnerable to climate change, students in Cameroon are developing innovative technological solutions

by John Abraham, "Climate Consensus - The 97%," The Guardian, January 28, 2014

A man cycles past furniture for sale at the roadside in Cameroon.
A man rides a bicycle in Cameroon; a country very vulnerable to climate change that it didn't cause, but developing innovative solutions to the problem. Photograph: Peter Treanor/Alamy
My research involves not only studying the Earth's climate, but also working to find clean energy solutions that will enable people and regions to have access to reliable electricity without increasing emissions of heat-trapping gases. In support of this effort, I recently traveled to Cameroon, which is on the western coast of Africa. There, in a town near the coast called Buea, I spent two weeks with my family and colleagues, working with a new university (Catholic University Institute of Buea, or CUIB for short) but more about that later.
First, readers of this column will note that I take a particular interest in the impacts of climate change that are being felt at regional or national levels. In particular, changes to weather patterns and how those changes are being driven by either natural or human causes is something I care deeply about. Fortunately, there is extensive literature available about observed changes or expected changes to climate and weather in and around Cameroon. For instance, some studies that focus on the impacts of climate change on the water cycle project that increases in rainfall and evaporation from lakes, rivers, oceans, and plants will have impacts that must be considered in future development planning.
Another study focused on the impacts that land-use changes and climate change have on Cameroon's forests; the study found future effects will be profound. Loss of forest lands will lead to loss of animal life in particular. More recent work confirms the vulnerability of Cameroon's forests to climate change. Those researchers found that while the people in Cameroon expressed a great deal of understanding and appreciation of climate change, the ability of the country to adapt to climate change was limited.

Perhaps the most detailed study regarding Cameroon's susceptibility to climate change was completed by the World Bank, which related agricultural output to climate change, in particular to changes in temperature and precipitation. The authors reported that since a large majority of the poor of Cameroon (and a significant percentage of the national GDP) work in agriculture, Cameroon as a nation is particularly sensitive to some of the changes we expect to see as the world warms.
And all of this brings us back to the university CUIB. I traveled there to find out what people on the ground observe. I spoke with the Dean of the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Dr. Laetitia Ako Kima. She told me,
"Farmers in this region are dependent on rain-fed agriculture and have observed erratic rainfall patterns and intensity which adversely affect agricultural activities and their livelihoods. Effects of this include among others, difficulty in following cropping calendars due to unpredictable and unseasonably long rainy periods, decline in crop yields, high disease incidence and crop losses, increased post-harvest losses and high labour costs, coupled with increasing incidents of HIV/AIDS.
These adversely affect their livelihoods, exacerbating already entrenched poverty which prevails at the grassroots level. There is therefore an urgent need for alternative coping strategies to mitigate prevailing circumstances."
 Outdoor community classrooms at CUIB.Outdoor community classrooms at CUIB.
So, how will a country like Cameroon plan for climate change and how do universities like CUIB contribute to those plans? First, we must recognize that climate change is a global problem. Emitted greenhouse gases do not abide by borders, nor do their impacts. In fact, as we've seen elsewhere, Cameroon is another country that has largely not caused the problem but may be impacted more significantly than other nations. The reason for this is threefold. First, since Cameroon's annual temperatures are confined to a small range, the biological systems are less capable of adapting to changes that modify the range. Second, Cameroon is heavily dependent on agriculture, which, in turn, depends on climate. Finally, Cameroon's limited financial resources make adaptation particularly difficult.
Countries that contribute least to climate change tend to be the most vulnerable to its impacts.Countries that contribute least to climate change tend to be the most vulnerable to its impacts, according to Samson et al. (2011).
Of course, Cameroon can, and will, play their role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However with a high unemployment rate and with challenges related to electrical power production and distribution, what can this country realistically achieve?
This was one of the questions I asked as I sat down with the Dean of the School Engineering, Dr. Asong Zisuh and his students. I quickly learned that innovative ideas from the young and entrepreneur-minded scientists and engineers might serve as a role model for us all. Dr. Asong Zisuh told me,
"The mission of CUIB (the entrepreneurial university) is to prepare servant leaders with moral and spiritual values to contribute to the sustainable development of their communities. Students are required to undertake entrepreneurial projects on issues related to sustainable development. Ongoing student projects in the the School of Engineering include: construction of wind turbines to generate clean and renewable electricity; construction of a solar drier to help conserve local farm products; drawing building plans for local housing that incorporate energy conservation practices; developing concepts for sustainable management of solid and liquid waste by local councils; biogas production for small scale use; and production of briquettes from bio-residues."
All of these very advanced and innovative ideas have been generated by enthusiastic undergraduate students. The young, it seems, express tremendous courage because they don't know what cannot be done. By this naïveté, they are sometimes able to accomplish what we old folks think is impossible.
The motivation for these environmental-conservation and climate change projects is not only related to the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but also to meet the growing demand for energy amidst huge supply shortages. Cameroon is a tropical country that receives a significant amount of daily sunshine and experiences a high generation rate of bio-residues, especially from agricultural activities. Thus, harnessing these available and inexpensive opportunities is required for the sustainable and economic development of the country.
Retrospectively, for someone like myself who works everyday on climate change, the slow progress can be demoralizing at times. I know that humans have the capacity to solve our climate and energy problems, we only lack the will. When I see what is happening at a small Cameroonian university that almost no one has heard of, I get encouraged. Maybe, just maybe, innovators like I've met at CUIB will be the change agents needed to preserve our future. Let's hope that's the case and let's support their efforts.

Monday, January 13, 2014

John Abraham: Global warming and energy – intertwined problems in Africa

Kenya is training for tomorrow's technology leaders to deal with today's climate and energy problems

by John Abraham, "Climate Consensus - The 97%," The Guardian, January 12, 2014

Kenya drought
A young girl in northern Kenya digs a hole in a river bed to retrieve water. Parts of Kenya are hit by drought as other areas get excessive rains. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Much of my work involves the design and installation of clean and robustenergy sources in remote parts of the world. On a recent trip to Kenya, my family had the opportunity to tour the Lake Naivasha region in Kenya. This region contains a treasure of wildlife and was a filming location for the movie "Out of Africa." During a boat ride, we witnessed the impacts on climate change – not through academic journal articles or conference presentations – but through people who see climate change with their own eyes.
In past years, Lake Naivasha had seen dramatic reductions in water level. The coastline had changed and plants and animals had adapted to a new normal. Recently, however, extreme rains have raised the waters approximately 4 meters according to our guide. The new waterline had submerged and killed beautiful Acacia trees. After conversations with many other Kenyans, it was apparent that the reliable wet-dry weather patterns had become more erratic; you didn't have to witness dying Acacia trees when farmers throughout the country told similar tales. Extreme weather swings were evident here before our eyes.
Flooding in Western Kenya, submerged buildings and Acacia trees.Flooding in Western Kenya, submerged buildings and Acacia trees.
Kenyan culture (and much of Africa) is deeply rooted in the patterns of weather and climate; much of their economy depends on agricultural production. That dependency has given them much clearer foresight than others about how to plan for the changed future.
The entirety of Kenya has awakened to the threats of climate change, including the government, agricultural sectors, energy industries and the educational system. My journey to learn more about Kenya's plans brought me to the beautiful and large Kenyatta University campus, just northeast of Nairobi. There, very new and quickly growing programs in mechanical engineeringenergy and sustainability, and agricultural engineering are just a few of the programs training tomorrow's technology leaders to make an impact solving today's problems.
Among the many initiatives are goals to provide clean, renewable, and robust energy for the campus and the country. Some applications they are focusing on are wind-powered water-pumping systems. The plan is to design, manufacture, install, and service small-scale wind power systems that slowly pump water into elevated storage tanks throughout the day and night. Students, faculty, and staff draw the water is drawn down, typically during morning and evening hours. The prototype wind turbine will be adapted to manufacturing techniques used locally, near the university. It is hoped that wide-scale testing of the wind turbine system will occur over the next three years and thereafter, fast market penetration throughout Africa will be inevitable.
Another emerging technology coming from Kenyatta is the use of novel technologies for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC). By using thermochemical sorption technologies, sometimes with solar heating, Dr. Jeremiah Kiplagat (recent recipient of the African Education Leadership Outstanding Professor Award) and his colleagues are setting the framework for improving the performance of refrigeration systems using these methodologies.
As a third example, a series of faculty-led student projects have been completed to develop solar concentrating and tracking systems for heat generation and photovoltaic power generation. The research teams have developed effective and simple means of moving reflecting mirrors and parabolic concentrators with the sun throughout the day to increase the amount of absorbed solar energy and increase the efficiency of the overall system.
While the faculty and staff are at the forefront in technology development projects such as these, much credit must be given to the administration. With implementation of new degrees such as doctoral programs in sustainability and masters programs in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, engineering hydrology, and biomedical engineering, with a focus on solving the energy and health problems that are prevalent in the East African region, this university, and the country as a whole are destined to remain leaders in their geographical region.
It is clear from formal academic studies and from anecdotal evidence that developing countries that rely upon agriculture will suffer greatly from climate change in the coming decades. It is hence apparent that the solutions to climate change, such as accelerated implementation of clean and renewable power, must be implemented with great wisdom so that people in these regions are able to access the same low-cost electricity that other nations have enjoyed. In this regard, the climate-energy problem is often thought of as a double-edged sword – solutions to the climate problem make access to low-cost electricity more difficult.
Currently, the major source of energy in Kenya is hydropower. This is why the School of Engineering at Kenyatta University has also partnered with regional and international organizations to promote climate mitigation in water and energy sectors. An example is the research being carried out by Dr. Luke Olang in collaboration with IGAD climate center on developing a drought-monitoring tool for the greater horn of Africa in general. The same research team is also actively involved in water management strategies in the vulnerable Mara River Basin, considered a World Heritage site due to the Great Annual Wildebeest Migration.
What Kenyatta University is showing the world is that it is possible to solve both the energy and the climate problems together. Novel energy solutions using locally available technology and manufacturing techniques can build economies, provide low-cost energy, and preserve the future climate for our children. This type of systematic planning and dedication gives me hope that our future climate and energy problems can be solved.
Perhaps the vision is best expressed by Prof. Chris Shisanya, Dean School of Humanities and Social Sciences who told me,
"We at Kenyatta University have decided to prepare our students early enough during their study programmes to confront the challenges posed by climate change. We are now offering such courses as MSc. (Integrated Watershed Management) and MSc. (Climate Change and Sustainable Development), whose main focus is on adaptation to climate change. We believe that by exposing our students to such knowledge, they will be better equipped to help communities in Kenya's rural landscapes enhance their resilience to climate change impacts."

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