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The Tipping Points: One Woman’s Inspiring Exploration Of Africa’s Floods & Droughts

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Photograph by Benjamin Hogarth

Sydney mum Liz Courtney traded in her corporate life to direct documentary films. Here, Liz shares her exclusive behind-the-scenes story of her six part eco TV series The Tipping Points. Check out part six of Liz’s journey, Africa – Floods and Droughts and be inspired…  

Liz Courtney, director of The Tipping Points, and her crew venture to some of the most fragile regions in the world – all ecological tipping points, where the slightest environmental change could impact the entire globe and life as we know it. In the first five episodes, Liz and her team explore the Greenland ice melt, the Amazon rainforest risks, the rising ocean levels of Australia and beyond, India’s water crisis and the consequences of Methane and CO2 being released in the Arctic. Here’s part six of Liz’s incredible journey around the globe, where Liz and The Tipping Points team investigate the droughts and floods occurring in Africa.

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The Tipping Points eco-series director Liz Courtney on location. 

Filming in Africa: What was it like?

Africa was by far our wild child. The production schedule was changed multiple times as we were faced with civil war breaking out in Mali, that made it near impossible for us to get the crew in and out safely. Then the Congo started to experience civil unrest and we had to work around this, plus extreme heat in the Sahara with climate scientist Prof Richard Washington.

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Climate Journalist Bernice Notenboom kayaking in Mali. 

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The crew filming in Africa. 

Africa is an enormous continent. What really hit me was the challenges this continent is facing now and will face in the future as our climate system becomes more unstable and unpredictable. Over 90% of people in Africa survive on subsistent farming and 75% of this farming relies on natural rainfall. But now rainfall patterns are changing across this vast continent. Greater droughts, followed by mega floods, both destroy their agriculture and in turn this leads to massive famine and mass population movement to find new land and new homes to feed their starving families. Climate Refugees have no legal status yet, but we learnt that the United Nations is working to create the framework for their protection – this is just one of the pressures facing Africa as we move into the future.

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In Namibia with the local villagers. 

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A village in Namibia. 

Where in Africa did you travel?

We travelled from the far north to the far south of Africa – distances were vast. We met with Prof Richard Washington from Oxford University who is flying an airborne laboratory over the Sahara desert to measure the changes in dust particles being carried in the atmosphere. Increased wind activity and increased temperatures are seeing larger dust particles being carried, which are affecting wind patterns, weather cells and finding their way across the Atlantic to river systems on the east coast of the USA.

Watch Prof Richard Washington and The Tipping Points crew here.

Increased temperatures in the Indian Ocean adjacent to the east coast of Africa are warming up the fastest of any ocean on the planet. This is bringing with it increased kinetic energy, which converts to massive hot winds that are buffering the African coastline and then drawing moisture out of the Congo. As Dr Michael Marshall, from the United States Geological Survey, explains it’s all very inter-linked, like a set of dominos. Once you knock one, you set about a chain reaction.

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Dr. Michael Marshall with the film crew. 

What was Cape Town like?

Cape Town was beautiful, colourful, and home to the Fynbos (natural shrubland or heathland vegetation occurring in a small belt of the Western Cape of South Africa), one of the oldest Biomes on the planet. Here you find over 60% of all seed profiles in Africa on the on location – and Proteas (South African flowering plants), just like ones we have in Australia, which have a genetic footprint of over 6 million years. Dr Nicky Allsopp from the South African Environmental Observation Network, measures changes in rainfall and explained to us that fresh water supply is a massive problem for this area, and could impact on the Fynbos in the coming years.

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Climate journalist Climate Journalist Bernice Notenboom observing the Fynbos.

And Namibia?

From Cape Town we headed to Namibia to visit a major NOAA climate monitoring station – part of a chain of data collection points that tell us how fast and how rapid the climate system is changing.

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A lady from the Namibian village.

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Donkeys are used to transport food and goods in Namibia. 

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Namibia Desert.

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Villagers preparing food in Namibia. 

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Climate journalist Climate Journalist Bernice Notenboom in the Namibia Desert. 

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Namibia Desert.

From Port Elizabeth we set off to observe out at sea with Dr Tommy Bornman, from the South African Environmental Observation Network to observe the changes in ocean current, particularly the Agulhas Current, which is off the coast of South Africa and is said to stimulate North-South ocean circulation in the Atlantic. This ‘conveyor belt’, which redistributes and controls heat around the globe, is threatening to slow down due to melting ice off the Greenland Icesheet. However, scientists and satellite measurements show this small but powerful current is helping accelerate the currents and keep Europe’s temperatures still relatively mild.

Learn about the Agulhas Current here. 

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The team investigate the effects of climate change at the coastline. 

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What’s Africa’s climatic challenge?

Africa is so diverse, it has multiple challenges now and into the future due to our changing climate system, but the biggest will be the distribution of fresh water across this continent as warming oceans, increased water vapour in the atmosphere and changes to massive climate systems including the West African Monsoon change and become unstable – to what and how many thousands of millions of climate refugees we will see from Africa is what scientists are trying to work out.

What can we do to help save the planet and prevent further climate change?

If we could work to reduce our personal carbon footprint by just 5% then collectively we could make a huge difference and start to turn the tide around. It takes a combination of a collective way of thinking and living that can become a new carbon footprint for all of us to aspire to, achieve and then live. Changing a carbon footprint could include:

  • shopping locally, buying produce that’s grown locally.
  • turning off all power plugs overnight.
  • not leaving lights on during the day
  • using low wattage globes
  • walking to the shops when possible
  • taking public transport where possible
  • purchasing bikes and using them before a car to travel around the local area
  • working on reducing your electricity bill  by 5%
  • recycling clothes with friends rather than always buying something new ( how many of us have things in our wardrobe we have not worn, impulse purchase, or been given and it’s the wrong size or colour)
  • read the labels on clothes and avoid chemicals -synthetics that are full of chemicals take up to 30 years to breakdown in landfill
  • wear clothes more often before you wash them
  • explore solar power panels on your roof and start making your own power
  • explore recycling grey water  for the garden
  • start a community Carbon Zero group and meet quarterly to explore ways you can reduce the carbon footprint in your area.

Take a leadership role in your family, with friends open the dialogue and explore new ideas and ways you can reduce your footprint by 5% and make a pledge to try for the next three months to make a difference. Put out the pledge on Facebook and see how many of your friends will join you on this quest.

Get involved

Tell us how you have tried to reduce your carbon footprint. It could be as simple as turning lights off at night, or limiting your tumble dryer use. Every little bit helps, so let’s start the discussion here and make a difference together.

For more information visit:

The Tipping Points or read about Liz’s behind-the-scenes journey with the film crew on the links below:

1. GREENLAND ICE MELT
2. AMAZON RAINFOREST RISKS
3. AFRICA ALARMED – DROUGHTS AND FLOODS
4. ARCTIC PERMAFROST PERIL
5. OCEANS DANGEROUS RISE
6. INDIA WATER CRISIS

Written by Liz Courtney

Liz Courtney is a documentary maker and notably directed Earth’s Survival and the series The Tipping Points of Climate Change. She is a mother and social entrepreneur.
Liz was one of the winners of 100 Women of Influence awards in 2015

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