El Niño to Bring Floods, Drought
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Farmers and pastoralists throughout Africa could soon be confronting a dual threat, thanks to this year’s potentially record-breaking El Niño phenomenon. The weather system has the potential to cause both severe drought and significant flooding throughout the continent, leading to reduced or damaged crops, income losses, and increased food insecurity for many of the region’s poorest populations.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Centers for Environmental Information has predicted that the current El Niño, a global weather pattern that occurs every 2-7 years due to changes in ocean temperature and air pressure in the Eastern Pacific, could last into mid-2016. The system has already caused significant problems in southern Africa. According to a FEWS NET regional alert, eastern South Africa, northern Malawi, Lesotho, southern Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, and areas of central Tanzania have experienced prolonged dryness and unusually high temperatures this year, which have led to failed crops. FEWS Estimates as of July placed both South Africa’s and Malawi’s national maize harvests as the lowest in more than five years.  Several countries, including Malawi and Zimbabwe, are expected to see an early start to the lean season; many poor households in these countries could face limited access to food, and up to three million people could face stressed or crisis-level food insecurity by early 2016. According to the same report, other areas of the region, such as southern Malawi and north/central Mozambique, have experienced abnormally heavy rainfall, leading to severe flooding and crop losses. The floods have displaced up to 650,000 people, and these areas are currently in a state of stressed food security even with ongoing humanitarian aid.

Northern Ethiopia and southern Sudan have also experienced significantly lower rainfall since June, causing widespread crop and livestock losses, according to a regional FEWS NET alert for East Africa. Late seasonal rains combined with persistent intermittent dry spells led to reduced planting areas and late planting. In some areas, rainfall deficits have reached as much as 50 mm below average, says the latest FEWS NET weather hazard report, leaving little moisture for crops and livestock. However, the report also predicts increased rainfall in the coming weeks throughout southern and eastern Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, and southern and coastal Kenya.

While the aforementioned regions struggle to deal with the effects of drought, other areas are facing the opposite problem. Heavy rainfall is expected throughout the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and some Gulf of Guinea countries, according to FEWS NET’s weather hazard report. In the Horn of Africa, rainfall is forecast to be higher than usual from October through December; while these rains could benefit agricultural and livestock production, it also increases the risk of flooding and landslides. In addition, too much rain can also be just as detrimental to food production as too little. According to an article in the International Business Times, heavy flooding has already damaged maize and cotton crops in Kenya and Tanzania, in addition to killing multiple people and leaving hundreds more homeless . The same IB Times article reports that coffee farmers in Kenya and Uganda are preparing the potentially lowered output this year; excess rain can destroy crop flowering and cause plant fungus that damages the coffee beans.

What makes this year’s El Niño particularly challenging is that its effects are more varied, and thus harder to predict, than those seen in previous cycles (IB Times, September 3, 2015). As a result, both policymakers and farmers throughout the region are struggling to know how to prepare. In addition, El Niño events seem to be occurring more often, leaving less time between cycles for populations to recover from previous episodes of drought or flooding. In a region where large parts of the population are already significantly food-insecure (for example, in Somalia, an estimated 731,000 people face severe food insecurity, according to FAO), any further reduction in agricultural reduction and food supply could be disastrous. FEWS NET expects the number of people facing crisis-level food insecurity to increase substantially over the coming months, particularly in southern Africa and the Horn of Africa, and is calling for international organizations and world governments to be prepared to give high levels of humanitarian assistance to the region.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: EC/ECHO/Nicolas Le Guen