Africa is ill positioned to contend with disasters. But natural disasters like drought, flood, and desertification have long wreaked havoc on the continent. This, along with extreme poverty, poor governance, and infectious disease, helps explain why Africa, though it is massively endowed with natural and human resources, has not yet managed to exploit its advantages fully.
Making matters worse, Africa has endured enormous bloodshed over the decades—during the Cold War, during the continent's wars of political liberation, and in more recent civil wars. And because of the explosive remnants of war that are left behind, lives and limbs continue to be lost long after hostilities cease. Anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and unexploded ordnance remain an ugly scar on the face of the continent. If anyone requires evidence that conflict creates humanitarian catastrophes, Africa is the best place to look for it.
Though nuclear weapons do not exist in Africa now—South Africa has disarmed, and today the Treaty of Pelindaba, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone, has been ratified or at least signed by almost every African country—they remain the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Africa would be altered in the twinkling of an eye if a nuclear device were detonated there, and the continent would suffer grievously if a nuclear weapon were used elsewhere in the world. That is why African nations have not only established a nuclear-weapon-free zone, but have also enthusiastically supported the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the goal of nuclear disarmament.
May Africa arise. In March of this year, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a conference in Oslo to consider the humanitarian effects of a nuclear detonation, and whether the world could in any meaningful way cope with a detonation. The conference created momentum toward a treaty that would ban the use of nuclear weapons and mandate their elimination, and it has led many stakeholders—people involved in defense, security, diplomacy, human rights, agriculture, and the environment—to approach the issue of nuclear weapons with renewed vigor. African nations are taking a leading role in this effort, and representatives of a number of African states spoke eloquently at the Oslo conference.
Africa would be severely affected by a nuclear detonation even if the explosion occurred far away. A detonation anywhere in the world would likely reverse the continent's recent development gains. Efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals would be rendered essentially useless. Most available resources would be redirected toward mitigating the nuclear catastrophe and attempts to meet the Millennium Development Goals would be cast by the wayside.
A nuclear detonation anywhere in the world would have profound implications for the work of organizations that provide disaster relief, refugee assistance, and health care, as well as those that promote human rights, food security, poverty alleviation, and environmental sustainability. These organizations would likely divert their resources to disaster mitigation elsewhere in the world, and African countries would be deprived of assistance.
Africa's vast distances and inadequate infrastructure, along with the barriers that separate people along cultural, linguistic, and geographic lines, make the continent a very challenging environment to establish disaster preparedness—and if a detonation occurred in Africa, no nation on the continent would be equipped for it. No hospital could handle the burn cases created by a detonation. Blood transfusion services are already strained to their limit in this era of HIV/AIDS, and it is difficult to imagine that they could function properly if a nuclear weapon were detonated. In a city suffering a nuclear detonation, municipal services such as firefighting, sewage, and housing, to name but a few, would fail. Transportation, education, and water systems would be negatively affected, both in the immediate aftermath of a detonation and for a long time thereafter. African economies' gross domestic products are already very low in most cases, and diverting economic resources toward recovering from a nuclear detonation would only exacerbate the situation, leading to more hunger, poorer health, and more political instability.
Because Africa would suffer such enormous negative effects from a detonation, African countries should continue to play a leading role in the movement toward abolishing nuclear weapons. If Africa is to avoid increased hunger, the spread of new and emerging diseases, and political instability—all of which would make development a mirage—the possibility of a nuclear detonation must be averted.
In early 2014, Mexico will host a follow-up event to the Oslo conference. There, African countries should take stock of, and make clear to others, what they stand to lose in development terms if a nuclear weapon is used. If ever it were true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, now is the time.