Clooney sickness puts global warming on South Sudan agenda

Last Friday’s revelation that Hollywood superstar, George Clooney, contracted malaria during a visit to observe the South Sudan referendum may deliver an unintended wake-up call to the architects of the new state.

Although the final outcome of the poll may not be known until February 14th, the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau announced on Friday that 99% of votes counted so far have backed secession from the North.

The way now seems clear to prepare for the next stage of the nation’s foundation – tough negotiations with the government in the North and a flurry of institution-building in the South.

Understandably, within such a formidable agenda, there is little evidence that the current autonomous government of South Sudan has been able to consider a national response to climate change.

Whilst Clooney’s mishap may stem from disdain for prophylactics rather than global warming, it’s a timely reminder that almost the whole of South Sudan is endemic to malaria.

Climate change models predict that temperatures in the inner land areas of Africa will rise at higher rates than the global average. However, scientists are unsure exactly how the malaria parasite will respond to a warmer habitat.

South Sudan is no place to be conducting an uninvited experiment. The UN Development Programme believes that up to 36% of the population suffers from malaria. The real figure may be much higher.

Free to exert its full impact in a region of sparse and inadequate health facilities, the disease sucks out the blood of economic growth.

Malaria is not the only threat to development that may be aggravated by climate change. Security heads the list of stipulated topics for the negotiations due to be facilitated by the African Union in accordance with the Mekelle Memorandum of Understanding signed in July 2010.

The spectre of the unresolved conflict in Darfur in the North may haunt the Southern negotiators. Some may recall that in 2007 the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, wrote in the Washington Post: “amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”

Ban was referring to the impact of desertification on traditional agricultural and pastoral livelihoods. Tribal groups resorted to violence to settle disputes over diminishing land and water resources.

Desertification is less of a threat in the states designated for a future South Sudan. However, their agriculture base is no less primitive, with 80% of the population dependent on one of the most volatile rainfall patterns in the world. And crop yields may fall as higher temperatures shorten the growing season.

One unattractive feature of the rural economy is common to both North and South. Ethnic rivalries and a proliferation of small arms remain primed to explode over access to natural resources.

Tensions over the division of oil revenues or international debt can be resolved in the formal post-referendum negotiations. But neither north nor south of this impoverished region is responsible for global warming and its impact cannot be softened by words in an agreement.

Instead, the embryonic government of South Sudan will be encouraged to deploy the weapons of adaptation to climate change in every aspect of its development programme.

Unfortunately, the environment ministry of the autonomous government in the South was established only last September. The minister, Isaac Awan Maper, recently told the Sudan Tribune: “all of us in the ministry are new. What is currently being done is setting up of the ministry itself. We are still drafting policies and creation of relevant departments.”

This sounds like a situation tailor-made for decisive international intervention on the financing of climate change adaptation.

In its National Adaptation Programme of Action published in 2007, Sudan presented 32 carefully planned projects. The introduction observed: “it is no overstatement to declare …. that our ability to adapt to the projected changes in climate will be a critical factor upon which the future prosperity – perhaps even the survival – of thousands of Sudanese communities depends.”

Such is the lethargy of global UN negotiations that donor support specifically designated for climate adaptation in Sudan so far appears to be limited to a single project.

The concentration of UN and international aid agencies active in Sudan might also be expected to lead by example. But the 148-page document detailing the 2011 UN appeal for $1.7 billion for Sudan contains only incidental references to climate change.

Agencies will of course point out that their extensive food security and health programmes include climate-resilient components – the search for new seed varieties, more careful management of water resources and greater attention to malaria by health authorities.

Nonetheless, the new government will struggle to make the connection between climate change and development without more explicit encouragement.

George Clooney travelled to Sudan as part of an international effort to defuse the short term tinderbox of a controversial poll.

If his close encounter with a Juba mosquito enables global warming to impose itself on the independence agenda, then development in the South and long term peace may be a step closer.


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News