St. John’s Discussion Highlights Impact of Climate Change on Africa’s Poor

Black and white photo of hands holding a bowl with a colorful globe
February 15, 2024

The impact of environmental change on people experiencing poverty in East Africa cannot be underestimated, according to a panel of experts brought together for the second in a series of six lectures sponsored by the Vincentian Chair of Social Justice at St. John’s University.

The 2023–24 lecture series titled “Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor” is designed to illustrate the often disproportionate impact of environmental change on the world’s poor. On February 8, the series brought together students and members of the University’s administration, faculty, and staff in a dialogue with scientists, religious leaders, students, and educators from Tangaza University College in Nairobi, Kenya.

Tangaza is one of the leading Catholic universities in East Africa. Its mission includes respect for all creation, making it an ideal partner for St. John’s Vincentian tradition, according to Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M. ’13HON, Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society, who moderated the virtual discussion.   

The discussion was titled “Climate Change and Its Effects upon the Marginalized of Africa.” Among the presenters was Tangaza student Xavier Yego, whose talk explored the devastating impact of drought on those living in near poverty. Many of Kenya’s poor are farmers; as drought conditions worsen, crops and animals die, leaving the farmers with little to harvest or eat.

This year, Kenya emerged from five years of drought leaving more than five million citizens to confront food insecurity and associated diseases, according to the United Nations.

“Over the past four or five years, we have experienced the worst drought in about 40 years,” Xavier said. “We lost livestock, and we lost people to starvation and a lack of water. More than 36.1 million people in East Africa have been affected. We also lost nine million livestock, which is the main source of revenue for most of the families in the region.”

A depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer due to deforestation has resulted in warmer temperatures in Kenya and across the globe, contributing to drought, Xavier said. That has left many of the country’s poor without drinking water.

When it rains, climate change creates unstable weather patterns, leaving Kenya’s poor unable to prepare for quickly-developing storms. “People have little time to prepare for these calamities,” Xavier explained.

With aging dams and insufficient infrastructure support, rainfall often results in flooding. That results in the loss of property and crops and an increase in water-related illnesses such as cholera. Hospitals and essential government buildings are left without power and unable to treat the sick.

“Those who are marginalized and live in informal settlements have nowhere to go and no one to support them,” said Brother Andrew Egesa, F.S.P., a member of Tangaza University’s Center for Leadership and Management. “You find some of them losing their lives. Others are left stranded because they have no hope.”

The first lecture in the series was held on December 5 and focused on environmental justice issues in India. In both lectures, St. John’s students exchanged ideas with representatives of the visiting universities. Seven students represented St. John’s at the latest lecture, including senior Environmental Science student Lucas Shears, President of the Earth Club and a student worker in the Office of Sustainability.

Lucas inquired about private and government efforts to enhance water collection in Kenya and efforts to mitigate flooding, including potential upgrades to dams and levees. Brother Andrew said the Kenyan government has implemented modern technologies and sought to upgrade its infrastructure. It also has partnered with nongovernmental agencies such as the Red Cross to protect its citizens during times of emergency.

It is a start, Brother Andrew said.

“The government has people on site to ensure that when it is putting up dams, it does so to the correct standard,” Brother Andrew explained. “Processes are followed to ensure that drainage is OK and that if older dams break up, they do not endanger the lives of the people.”

“If these issues happen, the government does its best to partner with agencies to help those who are impacted,” Brother Andrew continued. “They do want to ensure that people are accommodated well and do not suffer.”

The third lecture in the series is scheduled for March 4. St. John’s students will join representatives from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, for a virtual discussion of the impact of climate change on the poor of Europe.