Do African Cities Need More Chief Heat Officers to Combat Soaring Temperature?

As Africa struggles to finance its climate goals, African countries’ cooling temperatures are increasing more than anywhere else in the world in 2023. Thus, Africa must seek immediate solutions to help the continent respond better as more people die from heat waves.

Abiola Durodola
October 24, 2023
min read

From July to August 2023, the earth recorded its hottest days while heat-related deaths also rose in Africa. Africa has always been at the forefront of climate conversation during global events. This is because the continent is battling to keep the effects of climate change at bay despite being responsible for just a fraction of the global greenhouse gas emissions. The continent, worn in many parts, has its thin fabric steadily stripped to the red earth beneath by extreme climate change in 2023.

Despite efforts by the continent leaders at rallying finance for climate issues, the setbacks are still glaring. From the Great Green Wall Initiative which was launched in 2007 by the African Union to increase climate resilience along the Sahel, to the Africa Development Bank’s Fund on Climate Action, efforts at rescuing the continent from the brimming heat, droughts and food insecurity seem to be far from finished.

The signs have been there for a long time, in fact, its ripple effect is visible in the form of conflicts and food scarcity currently ravaging many countries. However, it appears to have come with a more severe threat to human life and the environment in recent years. In 2022, climate change tallied about US$8.5billion in economic damages, while about 110 million people (with about 5,000fatalities) across different regions of the continent were hugely impacted by climate-related problems.

With no end in sight, the collateral damage from climate change in Africa might even triple as climate change deepens its effect on the continent.

It’s Boiling Here.

The effect of global warming is far-reaching across the globe, but Africa is bearing the huge brunt. The continent is grappling with so much presently and the intense wave of droughts, wildfires and desertification is intensifying the troubles of the continent. Temperatures across many of the countries along the Sahel and the Equatorial regions were among the highest on the planet with some countries recording above 400C(104F) in July 2023.

For a continent trying to grasp the nettle, issues like corruption, political instability, rising inflation and poor policy implementation have throttled its efforts at dealing with a nemesis that threatened the survival of its people. As such, the continent still battles for triumph against such significant odds which is not just a no feel-good story on media platforms, but a reality faced by its growing population.

This not only brings to the fore the heat waves around the continent, but it also highlights how severe it is in different ways and why immediate action must be taken. In the horn of Africa there is the ravaging drought and flood which is ripping families and communities apart in a tough fashion. For many, it has been troubling to watch about 36 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya suffer as these countries battle their worst drought in nearly four decades. As the drought lingers, so do the troubles of pregnant women and young girls in disadvantaged communities in these countries.

Earlier in the year, the Western Mediterranean Region of the continent recorded a devastating heatwave for 3 days when the temperature soared to 400C in countries like Algeria and Morocco. This has led to raging wildfires in countries like Tunisia and Algeria. Not just wildlife and human beings are affected, businesses are getting hit badly. In Tunisia, output in the country’s wine industry has faced a sharp decline (40-50% reduction), a significant blow to farmers and the country's exports.

In Niger, the mortality rate for livestock, the second most important export in the Sahelian country, is increasing seismically. In most parts of the country, families wake up to hunger pangs as drought in the country takes away the source of living and food on their table. In Nigeria, the lofty aspirations of climate adaptation are constantly tainted by the profound vulnerability of various communities in the country all year round.

Like other regions mired in unfavorable environmental hardship, a ubiquitous feature of many regions in the continent in recent years, Sub-Saharan Africa is gradually watching much of its farmland gradually eroding as the climate crisis spreads continent-wide. A new report by Surge Africa highlighted that eleven states in the Northern part of Nigeria are preoccupied with armed conflicts birthed by desertification.  

Building Resilience

Research has shown that countries that currently deal with extreme heat (with an average temperature of 350C) will witness a sharp increase in the number of exposed cities by the year 2050.This, again put Africa on a tiptoe as many of the countries that battle extreme heat are from the continent.

Globally, it is that time again, when leaders reiterate their commitments and realign their countries to different pacts and treaties on climate change. In Kenya, the continent’s first climate summit was recently concluded with renewed interest in global carbon tax by African leaders present at the countries.

While the ‘Nairobi Declaration’ has shown future potential in helping the continent overcome its financial obstacles in achieving the annual financing to cope with inestimable effects of climate change; its fixation on investments rather than the immediate systemic changes the continent needs is another cause for concern.

Possibly influenced by Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance (EHRA)’s piloted Chief Heat Officer (CHO), only one African country, Sierraleone, is looking inward for new solutions by appointing the first Chief Heat Officer in the continent. A not-so-fancy position, the CHO is interfacing between various stakeholders and the government to respond to extreme heat as the West African country seeks to salvage its people from more adverse weather-related disasters.

With an increasing need to save lives, the replication of the role of CHO might offer a glimmer of hope for African cities through the “roadmaps" and short-term efforts they use to tackle the heat. It has been noted that having a CHO, “someone that will focus on risk and identify solutions in a community,” is crucial as it has started yielding results in Freetown.

Experts have also noted that CHO can play a crucial role in raising awareness across different countries in the continent as they all battle extreme heat. In Santiago, Chile, the residents witnessed a scorching heat wave that threatened the lives and survival of other species in the city earlier in 2023. However, residents are getting relieved with the local heat-health solutions and strategies to protect the city.

There is now a huge focus on reducing the economic and social impact of heat in cities with CHOs around the world and this presents to city residents’ optimism as they watch their daily activities compromised by the rising temperature. While previous efforts in Africa have been short-lived and the problems persist, it seems many countries are still unable to pull resources to address the myriads of problems they face, unlike the developed countries that contribute so much to climate change. Therefore, the role of CHO might offer new opportunities for African cities to look inward and build resilience with little budget and as such should be explored.

About the Author

Abiola Durodola is a Researcher and Urban Development Planner. He works on policy advocacy and urban governance in Nigeria with the Advokc Foundation. He is

currently a German Academic Exchange Fellowship (DAAD) Scholar at TU Dortmund, an inaugural Green Academy Fellow of Heinrich Boll Stiftung Foundation Nigeria and a 2023 Mandela Washington Fellow at the Presidential Precinct, Virginia.