From Air Travel To Climate Disasters, A Reality Check For The World

Published 3 days ago
By Rakesh Wahi | Founder and Publisher, FORBES AFRICA
Flying at Night From Airplane Window View
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We often wonder what the most significant or transformative invention of our times is?

Based on circumstances and identity, everyone would have their own choice of that single change that has impacted them and transformed lives. From the bullock cart to cars to railroads to air and space travel, electricity, ships, defence mechanisms including submarines, jets, missiles, projectiles and drones, energy, industry, infrastructure, the internet, email, television, movies/entertainment, fashion, food, healthcare and so many other options, my favorite has been the invention of commercial aircraft. In many ways, this invention has been the most transformative in my life as it allowed me to efficiently travel and see more than half the world.

We sometimes take things for granted but imagine a world where, just as one example, you had to continue traveling by sea. My father took a month for his travel from the United Kingdom to India after his deputation with the British Army in 1956/1957. Owing to the Arab-Israeli war, the Suez Canal was closed, and they had to travel around the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa). It took me over three weeks to travel from Goa in India to Antarctica by sea in 1987.

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These journeys and many more that others have experienced have been cut down to less than a day. The long non-stop direct flights over approximately 9,000 to 10,000 miles are covered in about 18 hours; time that will continue to shorten This innovation and continuous improvement in the standards and safety of aircraft has resulted in the rapid movement of people and cargo all over the world.

The develop- ment of this industry will continue to be a major driver in unifying the world, building air bridges, and helping to create experiences and interpersonal and cultural bonds through business and tourism. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) report for 2019 stated that 4.5 billion passengers traveled globally in 2019 via 38 million flight departures.

Dr Rakesh Wahi

The report stated that almost 34.7% of passenger air traffic (domestic and international) was from Asia and the lowest at 2.1% was from Africa. Elsewhere, it has been reported that prior to Covid-19, globally, the number of passengers projected for 2024 was about 10 billion.

Covid-19 brought global travel to a grinding halt and the gurus immediately predicted a future where the need for travel was going to be limited, as work and meetings could be concluded online. How wrong everyone was! While the num- bers have not quite reached 10 billion, people have started traveling with a vengeance and despite soaring airfares, airports and flights have been packed for the last 12 months. Boeing and Airbus have orders that are going to keep these companies and their affiliates busy for decades.

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I picked this subject because of the dismal statistics from Africa. The continent is home to 1.49 billion people or 18% of the global population but contributes only 2% to the global air traffic industry. South African Airways currently operating around 14 aircraft (including wet leases from other airlines) has been in business since 1934 and after its 90-year history has failed to take advantage of a major gap in African travel. Ethiopian Airlines started in 1945 and, by comparison, has a fleet of approximately 148 aircraft today. It’s the only African airline that has attained some level of respect but is still a long way off from being an answer to African travel.

Other airlines from Kenya, Nigeria and other significant economies have not managed to scratch the surface of air travel. It’s easier today to connect to African countries via Dubai on Emirates than via any African airline.

Emirates with 260 aircraft and a history since 1985, covers 19 destinations in Africa and many more through its alliance with other African airlines. As per a Reuters report in mid-May, Doha-based carrier Qatar Airways is set to announce investment in an airline in southern Africa to expand its network on the continent.

Africa has a lot to offer by way of tourism and business opportunities. Its population is expected to grow to 2.5 billion by 2050. Countries in the continent need to step up their efforts to establish world-class airlines and associated infrastructure. This has been one of the major reasons for the phenomenal growth of Dubai, Hong Kong and Singa- pore and there is no reason for African countries to be left so far behind.

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The other major impediment for travel in Africa is the lagging visa regime in most countries, apart from the East African Community (EAC) countries that have a common visa on arrival for a number of nationalities. The Africa Visa Openness Report 2023 sponsored by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the African Union (AU) stated that 46% of African countries required African citizens to apply for visas before arrival, 28% countries were visa-free and 26% allowed Africans to obtain a visa on arrival. This remains a challenge for inter-African movement of people which is a basic requirement to enhance tourism and trade. When these statistics are applied to foreigners or non-African passport holders, the numbers get even more dismal.

In Africa’s largest and most developed economy, South Africa, it is still a challenge to get business permits and renewing a business visa can take up to a year, if not more. In today’s day and age with access to technology, facial recognition, and artificial intelligence, it should not be a major investment to get this basic service resolved.

It’s not that Africa is short of good ideas or leaders. The problem lies in the seriousness of intent and in implementa tion. A common passport for Africans was discussed under the auspices of the AU but nothing has been implemented and while there are leaders like Dr Akinwumi Adesina (President of the AfDB) champion- ing this cause, it remains a dream for now. Even if the passport is not unified, travel within the continent, as between the EU countries, should not be a challenge, especially for tourism and business. Given that there is poverty on the continent and many countries would like to curtail immigration to prevent unemployment and internal unrest, these issues must be separated from genuine tourists and business travelers.

Africa is seen as a destination for rapid economic development. Policies must change to embrace this reality. The other perennial and lingering issue that impacts the world, but more so Africa, remains climate change. As we continue to ponder about climate change and the future of mankind and planet earth, nature continues to provide a reality check on the lack of progress. Rainfall is welcomed by almost everyone around the world; irrespective of where one lives, we all have our share of it. It not only lowers tempera- tures but is critical for agriculture.

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The last 12 months, however, have seen an on- slaught like never before. I was in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) when we had the downpour around mid-April and the country experienced rainfall of 10 inches within 24 hours; the highest in 75 years. Life came to a standstill for 72 hours and it became prudent to stay indoors. When the clouds passed, one saw the impact of rain on a modern city like Dubai.

There was flooding in most parts of the city and while the authorities tackled the problems with their usual efficiency and miraculously brought the city back on track within 48 hours, what is a clear lesson is that the worst is yet to come.

The UAE was not alone in this experience. Almost every part of the world has experienced an inordi- nate amount of rain, cyclones, tornados and unusual weather over the last 12 months. This includes Austra- lia, Southeast Asia, China, South Asia, Russia, Europe, North and South America; none has been spared. Clos- er home, in East Africa, heavy rains recently in Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Somalia left hun- dreds dead and over one million people displaced.

To rebuild infrastructure from the destruction alone will require billions of dollars that these African nations, unlike developed countries or the rich Arab states, do not have and will continue to get crushed under a growing burden of aid and debt.

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But the past is of little consequence other than to learn from. Let’s look to the future, plan on how to better deal with these events that are acts of God or more likely the consequence of my generation’s unplanned and reckless development and greed.

According to a report from Phys.Org, almost two-thirds of the global population or almost three billion to five billion people across the world are going to be affected by inordinate rains unless the production of CO2 is curtailed. As per the report, countries are going to have different experiences based on several factors. As an example, it is projected that Spain, Portugal, Greece and Morocco (countries around the Mediterra- nean Sea) are likely to experience drier climates in the period ahead. Other parts of Europe are projected to have longer wet and dry periods. India and China are likely to experience more rainfall. The United States has its own seasonal hurricanes and tornados. In the last few months, there have been twisters, tornados, hurricanes and thunderstorms across Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Ohio. There has been widespread damage to homes, infrastructure, and disruption in business activities.

While there are a lot of reports that are continuously coming from several sources, including the impact of the climate systems El Niño and its oppo- site, La Niña, on weather patterns around the world, the reality is that many people are going to suffer and, in many cases, lose their homes and belongings to nature’s fury. The El Niño effect has seen widespread destruction and havoc closer home in East Africa and governments need to start strategically preparing for the coming 100 years.

Ever since Covid-19 started, the word ‘unprec- edented’ has, to my mind, become the most-used word to rationalize the intensity of any calamity. Each event seems to be more catastrophic than the last.

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Sadly, this is not something that will change and ‘un- precedented’ should not become our position of last resort. The planet has had its evolution over millions of years and progressed through five known ice ages in its 4.5-billion-year history. The planet has evolved between glacial and interglacial periods. Many reports have been released that we are living in the fifth ice age, determined by the polar ice caps, but we are more in an interglacial period that is known as the Holocene Epoch that started 11,700 years ago.

When we begin to talk about thousands of years, people lose interest. It’s largely because it does not impact the now.

The reality is that the planet does not need any saving. We need to save ourselves and our species from extinction. Since glacial action is slow, the jour- ney can be made more pleasant and meaningful and the end can be prolonged if we act sensibly. Let’s not wait for COP29 for more conversations and debates to once again prove Voltaire’s words: “Men argue. Nature acts”.