Climate Change Hits Hard in Zambia, an African Success Story

Apr 13, 2016 · 57 comments
John Tofflemire (Tokyo, Japan)
In order to attribute any short term climate event, such as a drought, to human-caused temperature increases at a particular location one would need sufficient regional precipitation data to understand precipitation cycles over a long term and a regional precipitation model capable of correctly forecasting the current drought and clearly showing the difference between the weather pattern that would have existed had CO2 been at a lower level and the observed weather pattern existing because of a higher level of CO2. If that is happening here, the author has forgotten to inform us that this is the case. The assertion in the headline that climate change is the driver of the current drought and economic downturn has no basis and no educated person should give serious thought to what is asserted here.
Brand (Portsmouth, NH)
The vast majority of Zambia's woes are related to commodity price declines as unrelated to climate change as is the drought. Appending climate change to their problems is literally conflating a tertiary matter to causation.
Ned Netterville (Lone Oak, TN)
"After a decade of being heralded as a vanguard of African growth, Zambia, in a quick, mortifying letdown, is now struggling to pay its own civil servants and has reached out to the International Monetary Fund for help."

When, oh when, will people discover that they do not need rulers and hordes of civil servants to consume their productivity? Whatever problems people face, including economic problems resulting from climate change or any other natural phenomena, rest assured the natural problem has been exacerbated by government. The people of every African nation-state since their inceptions have been subjected to corrupt governments, which have so devastated the lives of the people as to make climate change, drought, floods, and declines in commodity prices, look like blessings by comparison.
Robert (Out West)

Corrupt government, and bad government, and good government, are not the same.

Tennessee, for example, hasn't got terribly good government. Like most Red states, it's got a government that's busily chopping taxes for the wealthy, shufflng taxes around so they're harder to see for everybody else, denying health insurance to tens of thousands, and waving Bibles and same-sex toilets to try and distract everybody from what's going on.

And to be sure, denying that climate change exists.

As for Africa, know how their governments GOT corrupted? A little matter of several hundred years of colonial occupation, followed by various apartheid regimes, followed by massive bribery from outsiders--that's be us--who wanted the resources.

We've done a great job of teaching the shabby likes of Robert Mugabe, eh?

The good news is, government is fixable. Unless of course you buy into the Ron Paul fantasies, the Trump hallucinations, the Cruz bible-smaxking...
A. Pritchard (Seattle)
In my relatively short lifetime I've witnessed the wholesale death of millions of acres of forests in the U.S., the decline and disappearance of glaciers throughout my home state of Washington, the virtual disappearance of once unbelievably abundant starfish in NW waters, the third (and possibly most damaging) coral bleaching event in recorded history - the list goes on and on. I really look forward to the day when I read a story in the NYT and, looking at the comments section, I'm not immediately assaulted by knee jerk denial. Unfortunately, the level of proof it will evidently take to convince these holdouts will mean that the earth will have lost so much more than the short list above in the interim.
Joe (NJ)
I expect that it will take regular high-tide flooding of large swathes of coastal cities like Boston, New York, and Miami before the majority of people start seeing climate change as a real and dangerous thing.
James D. Agresti (Florham Park, NJ)
You are misinformed. As detailed in a 2000 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (

• “After two centuries of decline, the area of US forestland stabilized in about 1920 and has since increased slightly.”
• “Forest growth nationally has exceeded harvest since the 1940s. By 1997 forest growth exceeded harvest by 42 percent and the volume of forest growth was 380 percent greater than it had been in 1920.”
• “Nationally, the average standing wood volume per acre in US forests is about one-third greater today than in 1952; in the East, average volume per acre has almost doubled.”
• “Populations of many wildlife species have increased dramatically since 1900. But some species, especially some having specialized habitat conditions, remain the cause for concern.”

Certain individuals and organizations have a long and sordid history of exaggerating environmental threats. It’s long past time to stop blindly trusting in them and to start looking at the facts:
Brand (Portsmouth, NH)
We'll keep waiting. Meanwhile highly educated people build close to the coast and enjoy the shoreline.
Don Shipp, (Homestead Florida)
Jared Diamond in his 2005 classic "Collapse" described the collapse of societies because of environmental factors including climate change and water management. He directly attributes climate change to the collapse of the Norse in Greenland, the Maya in Central America, and the Anasazi in the American Southwest. The failure of political systems to comprehend the effect of environmental issues on societal stability is a problem of existential dimension. The issues in Zambia should be clear warning to those who refuse to consider and prepare for the effects of Global Warming.
Laura (Florida)
Thanks, Don. This is a good comment, because I read this article and of course I'm concerned about what is happening in Zambia and what's going to happen, and what should be done; but was the drought of the 1930's and the Oklahoma Dust Bowl due to climate change? I don't know, maybe it was, but I never hear it said.

To read about this terrible drought - and it is terrible - and then have it ascribed to climate change as if climate change is a new thing in the world, I think could have the effect of downplaying both the drought and climate change, for people who look back on humanitarian disasters like the Dust Bowl and think that these are being brushed aside and discounted or even forgotten because they don't tell the climate change story.
Don Shipp, (Homestead Florida)
Laura, you're right about the dust bowl. There were a number of causes for the devastation, not the least of which, was a basic lack of knowledge about farming methods and crop rotations, which could have ameliorated the effects of a truly horrific drought.
jacobi (Nevada)
Climate change isn't the problem, too heavy reliance on one energy source is. There have been droughts in the past and will be in the future. They should have built more coal fired, gas fired, or other conventional power source.

California could face similar problems this summer as a result of natural gas shortage.
Rudolf (New York)
Perhaps the overall African corruption, equally evident in Zambia, also plays a role in its misery as does being surrounded by the worse countries in the world (Zimbabwe, Congo, Tanzania, Angola). Constantly these articles here that some African country is within reach of being successful is getting old - won't happen.
Love is the answer (Manhattan)
"Giant dam followed by drought" is not a new phenomena. It happens repeatedly from Colombia to China to Africa. It is by now well documented that giant dams change local meteorological conditions. Climate change is real but the science behind this article is naive. Dig deeper and grind your climate change axe less.
GSo (Norway)
The dam was built more than sixty years ago with hardly any change the first fifty years. The substantial part of the water flowing into Lake Kariba falls in areas far to the west of the dam. Lake Kariba is quite far downstream of the Victoria Falls.
Steve Bolger (New York City)
Current population projections for Africa extend above 6 billion people by the end of this century. Something is sure to break badly sooner.
dd (Washington)
The problem is very simple. Best exemplified in Mr. Perkins book the "Economic Hit Man". Poor countries duped by Western conglomerates in developing expensive infrastructure, at the exorbitant cost to their respective populations. Governments or individuals within those governments that either don't care to do the necessary studies, and siphon off money through corruption. The same projects have been undertaken in Uganda. A dam built to supply electricity but is now owned by the Blackstone Group who only care for their own bottom line.
z2010m (Oregon)
The Kariba dam was completed in the 1960's
GSo (Norway)
Check your facts. This dam has been a huge success being the back bone of a relativly reliable power supply for decades.
James D. Agresti (Florham Park, NJ)
This article is the epitome of cherry picking. Droughts come and go, and this is perfectly natural. However, there has been no systematic change in global or regional rainfall for at least 150 years. In 2015, the Journal of Hydrology published a study of “over 1½ million monthly precipitation totals observed at 1000 stations in 114 countries.” The study found:

• “No significant global precipitation change from 1850 to present.”
• “No substantial difference found for stations experiencing dry, moderate and wet climates.”
• “No substantial difference found for stations located at northern, tropical and southern latitudes.”

Further information on rainfall patterns is available here:
J.O'Kelly (North Carolina)
A "mortifying" letdown? How about a devastating letdown? Really! I expect better from the NYT.
Bella (The City Different)
We still build our world on past experience. Unfortunately the past does not work in the world of climate change. Climate change throws in a lot of new dynamics even without mentioning what increased population involves. As long as the world keeps climate action on the back burner, things look less and less promising for our future. Zambia is only a small nation. Think of this on a global scale.
Joe G (Houston)
Are Zambians being taken to task because for their use of diesel generators? Portable generators are used in construction and farming too. All I got from the article is they are a bad thing. Zambia's carbon foot print compared to Michigan's must be small. Both have similar populations. Are they allowed the sin of electricity?

Thankfully there's no mention of demolishing the dam and it's diversions like so many want in California.
Iver Thompson (Pasadena, CA)
This is a useful story in that it points out the need to reframe the climate change dilemma and how it's presented, in such a way that its impact becomes more real to people and their response to it more dire and concrete. By to now, the reference is always with regard to "sea level rise", or something like that, that makes it sound to many like its only a problem for people near the shore; when in fact the impacts from it transpire everywhere and in all manners, such that it really does effect everyone, with no exceptions.
Joe (Iowa)
Wait, so there were never droughts in Zambia before the evil humans started doing evil things like heating their homes?
Reid Higginson (Cambridge, MA)
This reporting is missing a key aspect of the story here. While climate change is undoubtably a problem globally and in Zambia this article misses the fact that the low water in the damn is due to poor management, and possibly corruption, not climate change. This article is likely to going to help justify the current mismanagement. I think a correction or addition to this article is needed.

See below for a more complete perspective on the issue:
Nick (Brooklyn)
Europe - this is your next refuge crises forming. Take action now!
It has become fashionable to blame every weather adversity on climate change. The climate change malcontents only serve to destroy climate changes credibility. Droughts have been endemic to Zambia, check the records before making shortsighted claims.
Robert (Out West)
And if the article had said that, which it did not, you would have a point.
mford (ATL)
So, humankind's home continent will be the first continent made essentially uninhabitable as a result of humankind's progress.
RQueen18 (Washington, DC)
Zambia needs to listen to people who know what they're doing, and not rely on donors. That drought should impact the efficacy of large dam should be no surprise to anyone. The large energy users should be required to build their own, renewable generating capacity, with help from the government for transmission. Residents and small businesses can build and operate renewably-supplied micro-grids, and while those are being planned and built, they can use the new generation of generators which run on biodiesel and wood pellet. This is not rocket science, it is common sense. Pay attention.
Diane Baker (Nova Scotia)
The world fiddles as the planet begins to burn.
Amanda (New York)
Global warming's impact varies from place to place. in the Sahel, in Africa just south of the Sahara, global warming has actually raised rainfall levels substantially, resulting in the desert receding and agricultural output growing. However, this has not stopped credulous reporters claiming that places like Mali and Niger are suffering from global warming. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are suffering because they have the highest birth rate in the world. Niger, overwhelmingly illiterate, has seen its population quadruple since 1970. It is population growth that poses the biggest danger to the world, because even without any global climate change, the world's most backward places, Africa, Yemen, and Afghanistan, could double the world's population by 2150.
Kevin (NJ)
This situation also has a major impact on Zimbabwe. I understand that Kariba supplies about 50% of Zim's needs, and it owns a power station on the south side of Kariba dam while Zambia owns one on north side.
C.C. Kegel,Ph.D. (Planet Earth)
We do much of this damage to Africa with our cars, which are as dangerous as guns in their devastating effects.
We need to develop public transportation and learn to walk and bike.
NYHUGUENOT (Charlotte, NC)
Yes, folks 20 miles away from the doctor's office will be happy to bike into town.
dEs JoHnson (Forest Hills)
Climate change is a major threat to America in many ways. Yet the plutocrats have maneuvered the NYT and others into debating an issue from 1994. We know a lot now that we didn't know then. Let's face the present and its problems. The GOP is the enemy, not the Hillary Clinton of a quarter century ago.
jimsr1215 (san francisco)
REALITY: drought is a constant in africa since it is the only continent without a significant mountain range
Mal Adapted (Oregon)
jimsr1215: countries in Africa may always be subject to drought, but droughts are being made worse by anthropogenic global warming. That is a reality.
Adrian O (State College, PA)
A look at an official document
shows that Kenya has an ongoing pattern of droughts. The record in that document goes back 120 years. Typically "The water shortage may go on for several months or years."
E.g. 1925 "Heavy loss of livestock, Lorian swamp dried up; deaths occurred."
1952-1955 "Droughts followed by floods, cattle mortality at about 70-80% in Maasai land."
1987 "4.7 million people dependent on relief power and water
In California, for instance, droughts used to last 100 years and the last one ended after 5 years, so climate change made droughts 20 times shorter. In the US the Dust Bowl 1934-1940
was much worse than anything in recent history, so climate change has improved the drought situation overall.
Everyone admits that climate change is real. But did it it make things worse or better, compared to the record?

Same for everything. For instance, people die because of mortality change. But did that change make things worse or better?

Sadly, the article does not address any of these matters, though had the author put another 10 minutes in its preparation, he could have easily found the answers.
mford (ATL)
In fact, the article is about Zambia, not Kenya. Zambia is historically less prone to droughts than Kenya:
Elaine Supkis (Berlin, NY)
When we had cold climate change back in the cold, cold 1970's, we had endless stories about terrible droughts in Africa as well as elsewhere.

The Sahara Desert didn't exist until the Ice Ages, by the way.
Mal Adapted (Oregon)
Elaine Supkis:

"We" never had cold climate change in the 1970s. Some sensational mass media reports may have led you to think another ice age was imminent, but there was little support for it among scientists.

As I said in a previous comment, terrible droughts have often inflicted misery on Africans, but anthropogenic climate change is making drought worse.

Lastly, the Sahara Desert has come and gone throughout the Pleistocene and Holocene periods. You can look this up yourself, you know.
brad (sodowick)
This is a bit embarrassing on the NYT's part. While it neatly fits the climate change narrative that the editorial board rightly champions, it does so at expense of the facts about the cause of these blackouts. In 2014, the Zambezi River Authority, which is jointly managed by the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments, installed an upgrade which allowed it to significantly increase the power generated by the dam. This new machine was meant to operate 3 hours a day, during peak usage times, but instead, was left on continuously for several months. Kariba's water levels were high enough to sustain this sort of activity for a few months but with the lower than expected rainfall in 2015, blackouts became inevitable.

Maybe the reporter could have included this quote from former Zambian Vice-President Guy Scott "When I went to sleep at the hotel down from the Kariba Dam, all night and morning the water gushed past. Once they had their toy, they pushed the button, turned it on and left it, and down went the water.”

This is isn't a climate change issue, it's a matter of government mismanagement. I understand that the paper would not put the story of a small African country's incompetent government on the front page. Ultimately though, this sort of reporting hurts the cause more than it helps by emboldening climate change deniers to point to the disillusionment of those advocating the cause.

I expect better, NYT.
Connor (Austin, TX)
thank you for the information brad
Emily (NYC)
I was looking for mention of the government's mismanagement Brad pointed out in the article, and was shocked to find nothing. I'm fairly sure the NYT is supposed to fact check.. It's very worrisome to me that a government that destroyed its own country's resources in a number of months for financial gain is having their cover-up excuses validated by such a journalistic institution. The president must be rejoicing right now — his record has been cleared thanks to the "unknowable forces of climate change"... Yes climate change is real and important, but don't make a front page article about this when it is not the true cause. This is exactly what Mr. Lungu wants — to get the attention away from his responsibility and in the hands of "god." Why is the NYT supporting his version of the facts?

Also interesting to know: Mr Lungu has refused to pay student's scholarships this academic year. When the students went on strike he closed down universities! This is an interim government that wants to be reelected THIS YEAR. Maybe try and do some reporting that will actually help Zambians and bring forward what is really going on in Zambia —and what this corrupt president (whom many believe rigged his election) is doing—for the world to see.
Carla Orcutt (Eugene, OR)
Thank you for your comments. I expect the NYT will do a follow up article to give its readers the full story, right?
Stu (Houston)
Given the vast natural gas resources recently discovered in Mozambique and Madagascar, I wold hope that deals for piping that gas to Zambia are already in the works. Reliance on one source of energy, particularly one at the mercy of Mother Nature, is no way to build an economy.

You can blame "climate change" all you want (i.e. Blame the U.S.), but farmers long ago realized that harnessing nature was the only way to consistently prosper.
Mal Adapted (Oregon)
Stu, if Zambia starts using natural gas as an energy source, they'll have themselves to blame for climate change, not just the US. Natural gas, which consists largely of methane, produces about half the amount of CO2 per energy unit as coal, and 3/4 the amount of CO2 as gasoline. If the gas escapes into the atmosphere unburned, as so much does in the US, it traps 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 does.
Geo (Vancouver)
Mal Adapted (kudos on the name & pic) having access to electricity generated from natural gas would allow conservation of water when water supplies are limited. Add solar or wind and Zambia could have power and be better able to manage their generating resources and water supply.

It may not be a perfect solution but it's a way forward that minimizes harm.
Steve (Houston)
This obsession with CO2 needs to be seriously tempered. Having the lights on and food to eat is more important that obsessing about every gram of carbon in the atmosphere. If your belly is full; it's easy to be an environmentalist. If you're looking to survive; not so much. In the words of a liberal, check your privilege.
Bruce Rozenblit (Kansas City)
Climate change is affecting the most politically unstable and vulnerable parts of the world at a much higher level then the big producers of CO2. The loss of the glaciers and the drying up of rivers is making water a scarce commodity, the most essential of all commodities.

Nothing breeds instability like hunger and thirst. By spewing out CO2, the developed world is making life miserable for Africa and the Middle East. Those areas are heating up and drying out faster than we are. Climate change is like economic inequality. It hits the poor much harder than the affluent. Third world nations are bearing the brunt. We talk about building dikes, they just want something to eat.

There is an alternative. These areas have abundant sunshine. How much stability could we create in the world if instead of giving these nations military aid, we built them solar power plants? Corruption is so rampant in these nations that providing funds for anything just goes into a few pockets. We would have to build and manage the plants.

As much money as we spend sending our military all over the world, what would happen if we transferred some of that money into solar power projects?
RQueen18 (Washington, DC)
This should not have come as a surprise -- proof of willful ignorance on the part of the people who design and finance infrastructure. Here is a small idea: while dependent on generators, switch fuels. Yes, that might mean a need for the newer generation of generators to burn biodiesel or wood pellet. In the meantime the mining and smelting companies could build solar and wind farms to reduce their draw on Kibala. This is not rocket science. All one has to do is listen to people who know what they're talking about.
.N (NY)
This is shoddy reporting--from the headline to the last paragraph there are bold assertions that the drought is caused/made worse by climate change, and yet the "support" for that is largely a statement made by a "coordinator" (is he even a scientist?) of this third-world country's "Interim Climate Change Secretariat." Remember, climate change is not supposed to uniformly make countries drier--there should have at least been reference to a study indicating that this particular area would see worse droughts.

You cannot (or should not) write an article so devoid of research just because there is general consensus regarding climate change. This article reads like a third world country desperate to blame climate change for a drought in order to mollify its citizens. Each time articles like this are published, climate change skeptics get to point their fingers and say climate change science is more like a religion than science--how about we circumvent that by spending a little more time pulling resources/support for these articles?
Adk (NY)
To add to .N's point about poor reporting, this same dam had to release water in 2010 due to excess rainfall, causing the temporary relocation of over 100,000 people. Why wasn't this mentioned? Perhaps it doesn't fit with the premise created by the writer. The editors of the Times need to maintain higher journalistic standards.
D Brooks (Nashua, NH)
No, sorry. Articles like this one discuss the results of climate change, not the underlying mechanisms. And rightly so: The world has moved beyond having to give up space in every climate-related article to provide the background for the scientific understanding.

Discussing background knowledge and climate science is a legitimate topic for discussion and news, of course, but so is coping with what is happening and seeing whether we can alter it.
mjerryfurest (Urbana IL)
The article does reference significant measures of climate change: "Between 1960 and 2003, Zambia’s average annual temperature rose by 1.3 degrees Celsius, and rainfall has decreased by 2.3 percent each decade. The rainy season has become shorter, marked by more frequent droughts. When rains fall, they do so with greater intensity and tend to cause floods."
See also