Water way to go: Climate change and drought in Southern Africa

Drought, CC0

It cannot be denied that an unprecedented heating of our world is currently under way – climate experts are at this point already quite sure that this year is destined to be the hottest on record thus far, surpassing the records set by the previous two years.

Researchers also note that this jump in global temperature is not just a freak accident triggered by an unusually severe El Niño, but quite the opposite: it has been described as a catch-up of a recent hiatus that has according to some studies occurred in rising global temperatures. In other words, alarmingly, we are most likely experiencing a return to normality: rising temperatures.

Since late 2015, Southern (and Eastern) Africa have been hit extremely hard, and scientists continue issuing their warnings, too often left unheard, that human-aided climate change is likely to make such events much more frequent. In a paper recently published in Nature Climate Change, it is estimated that El Niño-linked catastrophic weather events are likely to almost double in frequency by the end of this century, from once every 28 years to once every 16 years, as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. This is very bad news for Africa’s poor, who reside disproportionately in areas prone to droughts, flooding, and other types of extreme weather. 

This year’s drought – which is a symptom of the global El Niño weather pattern – wreaked havoc on grain production across Southern and Eastern Africa, leading to widening hunger for many of the poorest populations in the world. The UN says the Southern and Eastern Africa region as a whole is having its worst drought in 35 years, and more than 36 million people face hunger at a time of record high temperatures. The figure could rise quickly to 49 million if no action is taken, as the real impact is still to be experienced. It is also estimated that it has been a century since the fields were this dry in South Africa, the biggest maize grower on the continent: agronomists have estimated that 30 to 40 percent of all maize crops were expected to fail this year. As a result, maize, a food staple for much of Southern Africa, has increased in price to a level that it has become a luxury the poor cannot afford. The drought has also drastically cut potato yields in growing regions in South Africa, causing the prices of the commodity to more than double this year in comparison to last year. In Malawi, many people have reportedly turned to wild water-lily roots called nyika, gathered from streams and swamps, to feed their families.

United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization data shows that of the 34 countries across the globe that required food aid this past year 27 were in Africa. The situation was estimated to be the worst since sub-Saharan Africa’s last major food crisis in 2002-2003, as approximately 28 million people are already contending with hunger, according to figures provided by the UN’s humanitarian affairs agency last January. Regional stockpiles of food were also depleted. It is estimated that already last year grain production fell by 21% across Southern and Eastern Africa, and the prospects for the next harvests are unfavourable. This year the Southern African Development Community (SADC) declared the situation a regional disaster.

There is another side to the situation, however, as things have changed in Africa over the past decades. Many African countries are nowadays wealthier, more capable, and better prepared to battle their own natural disasters. It has been said that the situation – or the global perception of it – has improved to the extent that donors no longer correctly perceive the severity of the current crisis and the actual need for assistance. According to one source, only 15 percent of the $155 million needed for relief aid this year had been funded earlier this year.

Earlier this year Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE urged governments and donors to coordinate their responses to the drought, after two consecutive bad harvests and the failure of life-supporting crops. The crisis is likely to have the largest impact on women and girls. It has been noted that, increasingly, families are skipping meals and eating wild fruits and vegetables to get by, and in Zimbabwe children are already skipping school days as they do not have the energy to attend.

While climate change on the global level can only be effectively tackled at a policy level (of which the recent Paris climate deal is an example), on a more local and smaller scale much can be achieved by science. Droughts and, one might initially think this incongruent, floods are becoming more common in our region and must be prepared for. In the SANBio member states there are numerous research projects underway to develop climate change and drought resistant crop varieties and other alternative food sources.

One would wager that we know the direction that must be taken, but determining the correct path and steps needed will require further thought and increased collaboration.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NEPAD-SANBio.

Author: Markku-Eemeli Pekonen