Guest essay by E. Calvin Beisner
In late May two evangelical environmentalists, recently returned from visiting Malawi, published articles in which they said poor Malawians are suffering from reduced rainfall caused by manmade global warming.
Jonathan Merritt wrote for Religion News Service, “In America, climate change is a matter of debate, but in places like Malawi, it’s a matter of life and death.” Judd Birdsall wrote for Huffington Post, “In Fombe village, Malawi, climate change is not a matter of political or scientific debate. It’s a matter of survival.”
The implication was clear: To help the poor in Malawi (and other developing nations), we must fight global warming.
If either author had dug deeper, he might have concluded differently.
Although the controversial Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project reports about 0.6°C of warming for Malawi from about 1970 to about 2010, the data are highly suspect, coming from fewer than 10 monitoring stations in a country that stretches nearly 600 miles from north to south, averages about 75 miles wide, and is slightly larger in area than the State of Ohio. Granted the widespread deviance of temperature monitoring stations even in the U.S. from standards set to ensure accuracy, and the likelihood that “urban heat island” effect (which occurs even in small villages) accounts for about half of apparent global and regional warming in recent decades, it’s likely that BEST’s data for Malawi considerably exaggerate any warming there.
Economic development also causes fictitious appearance of rising regional temperatures. As climatologist and former missionary to Kenya Dr. John Christy put it in an email, “I doubt any UHI corrections were applied to [BEST’s] Malawi temp data. … As we report in both of my papers (Kenya/Tanzania and Uganda), East Africa has a real problem with development showing up as rising nighttime (and therefore TMean [mean of daytime maximum and nighttime minimum]) temperatures. Since Malawi borders Tanzania, I would expect the same to be true there.”
Source: UAH Lower Tropospheric Temperature data v. 5.5, Malawi data extracted and graph prepared by John Christy, University of Alabama, Huntsville. Note: Y-axis is anomaly from mean temperature for the period in degrees Celsius. Red arrow is IPCC computer model projectins; blue line is satellite observations.
Although the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s computer models projected about 0.7°C of warming from 1979 through 2012 for Malawi, satellite measurements—unaffected by the problems that compromise land-based data—show no statistically significant trend in temperature.
Accurate rainfall measurements are very difficult to find for Malawi, but data for nearby East Africa show a slight increase in rainfall in the late twentieth century
Birdsall wrote that farmers “in every village” told him, “Until just a few decades ago the rains came by mid October and fell steadily until March. … These days the rains often don’t come until December. Sometimes it rains too much, sometimes too little. Flooding and drought can occur in the same season. The climate has changed.”
Similarly, Merritt wrote, “An elderly man from Fombe village … told me that water streamed here year round when he was a child. Banana trees and other vegetation once flourished on its banks, and an abundance of fish provided a critical source of protein for those who lived nearby. In 1977, however, the waters began receding and now flow only a handful of days each year.”
Of course, childhood memories are notoriously poor data sources, both for the past and for comparison with the present, but Merritt added this graph, from the 2006 Action Aid report (click graph to enlarge), showing apparent increases in droughts and floods.
Yet drought and flood data are no substitute for rainfall measurements. They reflect changes in population and land use, as climatologist Dr. David Legates explained in his lecture on global warming for Cornwall Alliance’s Resisting the Green Dragon video series. As population grows, demand for water increases, not just for drinking but also for agriculture, industry, and other uses, resulting in more frequent and severe droughts—even with no change in rainfall. Malawi’s population nearly tripled, from about 5.7 million to 16.8 million, from 1977 to 2013.
Population growth also results in land use changes. As land becomes more paved or built up, it absorbs less rain, sending more runoff into streams, which then flood more frequently and severely—again, even with no change in rainfall. As undeveloped land is converted to agriculture, demand for irrigation water grows, and agricultural land in Malawi grew by 43 percent from 1977 through 2011 and 75 percent from 1961 through 2011.
Land Used for Agriculture, Malawi, 1961–2011 (click graph to enlarge)
In reality, while rainfall amounts have risen and fallen in Malawi since 1900, there is no significant trend, as the data in the table below show. In 1990–2009, Malawi’s average monthly rainfall was 4% higher than in 1900–1930, 0.5% lower than in 1930–1960, 3.1% lower than in 1960–1990, and virtually identical to the average for the full 110 years, and there was no apparent delay or shortening of rainy seasons.
Malawi Average Monthly Rainfall (mm), 1900–2009
Note: September 1900-1930 and 1930-1960, 2.9 (mean of existing September data) supplied for blank cells to permit computation of percentages.
Are poor Malawians suffering from water shortages? Yes. Is that because of global warming—manmade or natural? No. Is fighting global warming the solution? No.
Malawi is actually a water-rich nation. Not only does its annual rainfall average approximately 40 inches (about the same as Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, and New Jersey), but also it includes much of Lake Malawi—“third largest and second deepest lake in Africa [and] the ninth largest in the world.”
About 80 percent of Malawi is within 75 miles of Lake Malawi, and most of what isn’t is within 50 miles of the Shire River, which flows south from the lake and eventually joins the might Zambezi River. Fifty miles is a distance easily covered by aqueducts. Fombe—where Merritt and Birdsall visited and heard the anecdotes about declining stream flow—is at least potentially a water-rich village. It is a mere 10 miles from the Shire.
For comparison, the Roman aqueducts, built two millennia ago, carried water 260 miles, and the system of aqueducts constituting the California State Water Project (SWP) provides drinking water for over 23 million people (over 1/3 third more than the entire population of Malawi) by transporting water hundreds of miles from the Colorado River, the Sierra Nevada, and central and northern California. The shortest, the Colorado River Aqueduct, is over 240 miles long.
Of course, California is wealthy (though it wasn’t nearly so wealthy when much of the SWP was built), and Malawi is poor. How can Malawi afford to build such aqueducts—even if they would cover far less distance and serve only a small fraction of the people?
The real solution to Malawi’s water needs is economic growth that will enable Malawians to bear the costs of improved water transportation, storage, purification, and conservation through efficient use.
Sad to say, however, if climate change activists succeed in enacting policies to fight global warming, Malawi’s economic growth will be curtailed. Why? Because abundant, reliable, affordable energy is an essential condition of economic growth, and activists seek to fight global warming by shunning the use of the most reliable and affordable energy sources for the developing world—coal and natural gas—and putting far more expensive “Green” energy sources like wind and solar in their place. As it happens, Malawi has abundant coal reserves and already mines them (PDF download), though it could benefit from mining far more to generate electricity and deliver its people from the smoke that comes from burning wood and dried dung as primary cooking and heating fuels—smoke that causes high rates of illness and premature death, especially among women and children, from respiratory diseases.
Ironically, and sadly, the climate policy Merritt and Birdsall want will only bring further harm to the very people they long to help, by prolonging their poverty—the real threat to Malawians’ health and life.
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and author of several books on environmental stewardship.