Climate Crisis in Zambia: Blutus Mbambi, Youth Climate Activist Shares his Story

The Global North caused the climate crisis. Now is the time to pay its dues

Extreme weather changes are causing havoc in African states such as Zambia but they can’t afford a Green New Deal without international support


In 2019, Blutus Mbambi’s village was hit by a drought. Speaking to me over WhatsApp from Lusaka, he explained how his family were suddenly forced to walk 12 kilometres to fetch water.

“I almost lost my friends. I almost stopped going to school because of the climate change issues we were experiencing. Most of the communities were migrating from one place to another to search for food,” he tells me.

“We used to depend on nature-based food to feed ourselves,” he adds, but there were food shortages and water shortages.

Since then, he says, “people have abandoned the area, because the area doesn’t receive rainfall. You can’t do farming well any more. We have moved 65 kilometres away.”


Blutus’ family, who come from the north west of Zambia, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, moved to the small town of Lufwanyama. But things were hard there. “It felt bad,” he says.

Climate threat to livelihoods

Blutus managed to get into university, where he originally planned to study forensics. But the droughts triggered a rethink. Now, he’s studying environment management systems and climate policy. He is a leading figure in a network of what he says is about 1,000 young people across the country who are actively organising against climate change. He is a co-founder of a new NGO, called the Centre for Climate Change Action. And he is part of the global Fridays for Future movement.

Zambia is already being hit hard by the climate crisis. “We’ve been experiencing increasing temperatures, droughts, floods, decreases in rainfall – changes of weather patterns. It’s October but the temperature just keeps on increasing,” Blutus explains.

With 22% of Zambians working in agriculture, projections that climate change will lead to significant declines in crop yields pose a vast threat to livelihoods. Many, like Blutus’ family, will be forced to move. The poor will become poorer, the vulnerable will become more precarious.

Every day, the thunderstorms seem more violent, flooding is more frequent and droughts more severe … our crops are failing

The main contributions that Zambia makes to climate change are through deforestation and agriculture, although its significant mining sector in the ‘Copperbelt’ region to the north of the country also plays its part. Ironically, because much of the country’s power comes from hydroelectricity, droughts are also causing power cuts, pushing the country towards more oil- based energy.

In December last year, the Zambian government submitted its latest commitment to cut its emissions – known as a ‘nationally determined contribution’ – under a process laid out in the Paris Agreement. The government said it would deliver greenhouse gas emission reductions of 25% by 2030 if the level of international support to do so remained about the same as it was in 2015, or 47% if it received substantial international support.

Green New Deals for all

When I ask Blutus what he’s going to be watching for at the COP26 Glasgow conference, two of the key things he talks about are climate finance, and what’s called ‘loss and damage’.

Climate finance, which will be a key strand of the negotiations, involves funding from the Global North to the Global South to support the transition to a low carbon economy, and to adapt to the now inevitable consequences of climate change. Loss and damage negotiations will discuss the fact that some of the now inevitable consequences of climate breakdown aren’t possible to survive. Human lives will be lost and key infrastructures such as homes and schools will be damaged. We, in the wealthy world, have done that to people in the Global South. What are we going to do about it?

Climate activists in Europe and North America often call for a Green New Deal on a domestic level. And of course they are right to do so. The transition to a zero carbon economy will require significant state investment. But what countries in the Global South often point out is that they too need their own Green New Deals. And unlike the former colonial powers, they can’t finance them themselves.

At the virtual Leaders’ Dialogue on the Africa COVID-Climate Emergency summit in April, African leaders discussed the effects of the twin crises of COVID and climate change on the continent.

Blutus Mbambi and his fellow activists in Zambia | Credit: Blutus Mbambi

“Africa contributed just 3% of global emissions, yet we are the continent which … is already paying the biggest price,” said Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

“Every day, the thunderstorms seem more violent, flooding is more frequent and droughts more severe … our crops are failing. People are being forced to flee their homes, becoming climate refugees,” he added. “Sea levels are rising, potentially drowning cities … The oceans are turning to acid and salt is penetrating croplands, causing further serious challenges to food security.”

In theory, wealthier countries have already committed to significant amounts of climate finance: in 2009, they agreed to climate finance targets that included $100bn a year each year between 2020 and 2025. However, last month, Oxfam analysed current pledges, and found that the total actually committed for that period falls $75bn short.

Zambia is much more a victim of climate change than its driver. The country’s per capita emissions amount to 0.4 tonnes per person per year. The average US citizen is responsible for 16 tonnes. And while it’s going to be possible – with investment – to deal with some of the impacts that climate change will cause for countries like Zambia, much of what is to come isn’t the kind of thing you can just adapt to.

And this is where ‘loss and damage’ comes in. If the first pillar of climate change negotiations is mitigation – how can we work together to stop carbon emissions? And the second is adaptation – how can we change to cope with the changing climate? Then loss and damage is the third – an idea originally muted in the 1990s by small island states, but gaining increasing traction.

Results of colonial destruction

Until 1890, the people of what’s now Zambia organised themselves into different civilisations with different languages, histories and ways of being. Over the next decade, the area came under the rule of Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, partly through violent military conquest, and partly through a deal King Lewanika of Barotseland signed to protect against the Portuguese.

Up until the 1960s, despite its rich mineral wealth, the country was treated as triply peripheral: as it was on the fringe of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which was itself on the fringe of the British empire’s important Cape Colony (now South Africa).

Over just 70 years, Zambia went through a dizzying series of mergers and demergers, treated like the subsidiary of a company rather than a human society: Barotziland–North-Western Rhodesia and North-Eastern Rhodesia were merged into Northern Rhodesia, and then again to be part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, also known as the Central African Federation, before eventually securing independence in 1964, after which the country was ruled by the independence leader, Kenneth Kaunda, until 1991.

However, like many colonies, Zambia’s economy had been built for mineral extraction rather than wealth retention, and was left heavily reliant on copper exports. In 1970, the price of copper collapsed on the global market. And Zambia wasn’t the only newly independent mineral-rich country: a group of countries with a vast percentage of the world’s oil between them had formed themselves into OPEC, jacking up the price of oil.

Like most other countries without major oil reserves, Zambia’s debt to Western Banks ballooned – from $800m to $3.2bn. Eventually, the IMF bailed the banks out, but forced a programme of economic liberalisation upon Zambia that crippled its economy.

This economic collapse is visible in the country’s carbon emissions, which fell from 0.9 tonnes per capita in 1970 to 0.3 tonnes in 1990: a grim story of impoverishment. Between 1990 and 2003, wages fell, child mortality increased, life expectancy fell and the number of people living on less than $2 a day increased from 6 million in 1991 (75% of the population) to over 9 million by 2003 (85% of the population).

In 2005, after the successes of the global Jubilee Debt Campaign, Zambia had around $4bn of debt cancelled, and was finally able to expand its economy, and in turn, its carbon emissions started to grow.

In August, Zambia’s ostensibly social democratic party, the Patriotic Front, lost the presidency to the centrist-liberal, United Party for National Development.

The new president, wealthy businessman Hakainde Hichilema, pledged in his inaugural address, to “implement an ambitious energy investment plan to increase power generation and further broaden the energy mix… put in place a conducive policy environment to encourage private investment in generation, transmission, distribution and retail” of energy, and promised to “strive… for Zambia to reclaim its place as one of Africa’s leading mining countries”.

He added: “We must ensure environmental sustainability and inclusiveness in our development agenda. We must mitigate against climate change and strive to build a green economy.”

Ahead of his previous campaign in 2014, Hichilema tweeted support for a campaign opposing an open cast tin mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park, although he has been much quieter about this issue more recently, Blutus tells me.

So far, Blutus is pleased with the new government, claiming that the previous regime produced a deeply corrupt society. On climate change, he says: “We had a number of policies of the previous government that were good on paper but didn’t show any action on the ground.”

The new government has agreed to adopt several of the youth movement’s policies. However, Blutus is cynical about their promises: “We are going to observe them – politicians, they just tend to promise us. Right now, they are just one month into office, we have to see.

“With the last government there was a lot of corruption, the unemployment rate was high – to get a job, you had to bribe someone – it has been quite difficult. When it came to the environment, he says the previous government “had a number of policies that were good on paper, but didn’t show any action on the ground.”

Listening to President Hichilema speak on a platform with a group of former US ambassadors a few weeks ago, Blutus’ cynicism seemed justified. He sounded like another rich man thinking that his country can also get rich by playing by the rules of international capitalism. He sprinkled his comments with a few eco-aware words. But the problem is, the international capitalism game is simply a race to the bottom.


By Adam Ramsay


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