Changing climate conditions are making it harder for people in East Africa, most of whom grow food or raise livestock, to survive.
Rainy seasons are changing, destructive floods and temperatures have risen, and the soils have become drier than in recent years. Among the hardest hit are arid and semi-arid regions, small islands and the coastal strips.
Environmental experts say it’s important for the people of the region to learn to adapt.
In an effort to help farmers, the University of Nairobi is now offering a masters and a doctorate in climate change – joining Kenyatta University as one of a few East African institutions of higher learning to offer advanced degrees on the topic.
According to Professor Shem Wandiga, acting chairman of the newly-established Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation, the university is proud to introduce the new programs.
"We found that there were a lot of gaps – nine gaps or areas – which needed tackling," he explained. "For these reasons, we are putting all of these into a course which will address basically the gaps that are in Africa, ranging from agriculture and food security to human dimensions of climate change, and areas of policy gaps and gender gaps."
Professor Wandiga said the institute will offer Master’s courses in Climate Change and Adaptation beginning September. He said that the university board approved the degree program last December after realizing that climate change is a devastating reality in Africa.
The program will focus on governance, case studies and the benefits of mitigation.
"We want to spend our energy and efforts on creating resilience [for] people who are living in these areas and may have experienced the impact of climate change," said Wandinga. "Our research and activities will be trying to help such people to develop survival and adaptation systems. We are going to look at both the adaptation as well as the mitigation. As a university, we also have to look at the science."
University officials said the course will be open to students from all disciplines, since the issue of climate change cuts across all sectors. Many students are already applying for the program that will offer 30 scholarships, 15 each for master’s and PhD levels.
But Dr. Joseph Ininda, acting Head of the Department of Meteorology at the University of Nairobi, said his department had already begun offering post-graduate courses on the topic.
"We’ve a diversity of students. Some are working; others have just finished their first degree," he said. "There’s potential in almost all sectors that require these kinds of applications. There are those who will use the training indirectly and those who will apply the skills in their places of work. We see it as capacity building on issues of climate change."
So far, he said, the program had attracted about 50 students, saying that the number was expected to increase.
Josephine Kirui works with East Africa Dairy Development Project, an initiative of small-scale farmers supported by Heifer International, and has enrolled for a Master’s of Science degree in Climate Change.
"I wanted to understand what are the real issues," she said, "because small-scale farmers are faced with a lot of problems… What I am learning in this course is that there were a lot of things that I didn’t know about climate change, but now I’m getting to understand the science behind it."
Another student, Ireri Waithavu, said he feels the same way.
"Initially, I wanted to do environmental science," he said, "but when I looked at it, it was too complicated, and I decided to narrow it down to something much simpler – that is straightforward. My idea was on climate change."So, when I heard the university had started the course, I was very excited, and I thought I could go learn more... and distinguish between climate change and weather change."
According to climate change experts, the global temperature rise must be limited urgently to avoid serious impact on African agricultural production, given that 80 percent of all Africans rely on rain-fed agriculture for a living.
[Editors Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the University of Nairobi was the only institution of higher learning in East Africa to offer an advanced degree in climate change. At least one other university, Nairobi's Kenyatta University, also offers a Masters of Environmental Studies (Climate Change and Sustainability)].