The surge in food prices last month linked to the US drought could have a severe effect on Southern Africa’s cities, where poverty is intensifying and rates of urbanisation are twice the global average. Changes in food production caused by climate change are felt most acutely by the urban poor because their eating habits are determined by affordability.

By mid-century, an additional 3-billion people will inhabit the planet, and almost all of this increase will be absorbed by cities in the south. In Southern Africa, about 80% of the population will be living in towns and cities by 2050. However, rapid urbanisation is not associated with increased incomes and better standards of living here as it is in some other developing regions. Meeting the rising demand for food in the context of exponential population growth, urbanisation and climate change is a challenge.

With increasing awareness of the crisis, researchers, planners and policy makers in Southern African cities are focusing on the effects of severe changes in weather associated with climate change. Key issues include how climate-science knowledge is used at the level of the city and how the effects of climate change might affect city functioning on metropolitan and household levels.

What has not been addressed in any detail is the extent to which climate change will affect the availability of food in cities, especially in the context of high levels of poverty. It is crucial that the links between climate change and food insecurity in Southern African cities are understood so practices can start to ameliorate the negative effects through proactive planning and programming.

Food prices are a direct determinant of affordability. Scarcity of certain foods caused by weather extremes pushes up prices that filter through to cities, where most of the food is transported from rural areas or imported. Changes in seasonality attributed to climate change can lead to more food products being scarce at different times of the year. These seasonal variations in supply can make livelihoods more vulnerable.

If climate variability affects job opportunities, this will affect the ability to buy food. Some of the urban poor use their homes as businesses, and when climate-related disasters damage or destroy houses, the infrastructure required to earn a livelihood is removed.

Malnutrition is a critical issue for the region. In urban areas, food availability is seldom the major constraint, but rather access to food for the urban poor.

The World Food Summit made a commitment 16 years ago to halve the number of undernourished people by 2015. By 2006, little progress had been made and by 2010 the number of undernourished people had risen. Each year, 10-million children younger than five die, most of them in developing countries.

In a recent report, the World Bank argues that malnutrition still affects a third of the developing world’s population. Micronutrient deficiencies and stunting associated with poor food security are considered an "extremely serious development issue".

Research by the African Food Security Urban Network in 11 major cities in Southern Africa, including Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, found that chronic food insecurity is pervasive in urban centres. Persistent urbanisation and poverty mean that governments, urban managers and civil society have a challenge ahead in relation to improving access to food for the poor while also addressing the currently unsustainable functioning and growth trajectory of the region’s cities.

While this is a daunting challenge, it is also a major opportunity.

Tackling ecological sustainability from the food-security vantage point provides a direct and tangible approach to creating wealthier, healthier and less environmentally consumptive cities. Climate-change adaptation and mitigation policies need to become a part of the development agenda for fighting poverty and hunger. This will require new co-operation and institutional capacity to analyse and monitor all the effects of climate change.

Meeting these challenges requires progress in poverty eradication, reduced global inequality, assured resource rights, the promotion of stable livelihoods, and gender equity. The problems of global disparity and achieving food security in a highly variable climatic context are connected and cannot be solved separately.

It is crucial that the links between climate change and food insecurity in Southern African cities are understood so practices can start to ameliorate the negative effects through proactive planning and programming.
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