In July 2009, I was in Ghana during a fuel shortage. This year, after Hurricane Sandy deprived the Northeast of gas, power, food, and clean water, drivers in New York and New Jersey were forced to line up for rationed gas. The cause of the fuel shortage differed from Ghana’s 2009 episode, but the resulting scenes at gas pumps were practically interchangeable. Sandy demonstrated that a natural disaster could quickly, if temporarily, downgrade a rich country to third-world status.
Fuel shortages and frequent power cuts are recurrent challenges in Ghana. Now in the midst of a rapid economic expansion and construction boom, the country’s electrical grid barely meets the power demands of mushrooming businesses and housing developments. Frustrating water shortages are also common, even in areas with plentiful rainfall.
Yet the loss of power or water supply is far more of a shock to the system in the United States than it is in sub-Saharan Africa, where people live with persistent deficiencies. While residents of Long Island complained that their power had still not been restored two weeks after Sandy, lack of electricity has been a part of daily life for years in many parts of even large African cities like Accra. The unseasoned Western visitor experiencing an electrical power cut in Ghana may at first have an instinctual response of dismay or slight panic, but for the ordinary Ghanaian, life and work goes on without skipping a beat.
Many climate scientists agree that extreme weather conditions will become more frequent worldwide. Few believe that Hurricane Sandy is the last of its kind. Perhaps it is time for residents and officials of hurricane-threatened regions to start “thinking African.”
One New York real estate agent has predicted that as hurricanes become more frequent and severe, more new homes will come with built-in backup generators. In Ghana, that has long been the standard for many residences and businesses, whose generators are designed to start up quickly after a power failure. At the larger hotels, where the switchover is often so seamless that it’s barely noticeable, maintenance of these generators is vital. That applies to health care centers as well, although many of Ghana’s government hospitals, including the venerable Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, often lack adequate resources or management to keep up the job. Yet in a country many times richer than Ghana, a failure of backup generators during Hurricane Sandy embarrassed New York University Hospital.
Sandy’s destructive power had repercussions beyond loss of power. Many people, particularly the elderly and disabled, found themselves unable to access medical care and medication refills. That is the status quo in much of Africa, where medical resources are limited. Innovative use of cellphones and other mobile devices has become a tool for overcoming infrastructure challenges in sub-Saharan Africa in particular. Some of those ideas could be modified and used in disaster scenarios in the United States. The University of Texas Medical Branch’s telemedicine service, for example, was able to resume near normal activity within the first week of the destructive Hurricane Ike while medical offices and pharmacies still lay in ruins.
After witnessing the almost unimaginable spectacle of the Lower East Side of Manhattan underwater, some people are for the first time seriously considering that climate change could be a reality. As this dawns on Americans, Africans too have an opportunity to learn a lesson from Hurricane Sandy. Now is the time for Africa to begin dealing with climate change, not later. The burgeoning African middle class is, not surprisingly, focused on prosperity and Western-style consumption, not on lofty goals like reducing their carbon footprint. But just as Americans can learn from Africans about being prepared for climate adversity, Africans should take note that even the most powerful economies can be brought to their knees by climate disasters.
Although green energy is not the uppermost concern of the average citizen, African governments should now be incorporating the principle in their development plans. The continent should jump to sustainable energy now, instead of following the West to the dead end of the fossil fuel path.