Droughts, failed harvests tied to El Nino devastate Africa

A woman draws water from a well in a dry river bed in the dusty farming district of Makueni, Kenya, in this file photo from Nov. 7, 1999. Droughts and failed harvests, linked to a “super-charged” El Nino weather pattern, are hitting millions of Africans this month. (GEORGE MULALA/REUTERS)

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From devastating food shortages in Ethiopia to soaring prices in South Africa, a new climate disaster is wreaking havoc across much of Africa, lending urgency to the climate accord that was reached by world leaders in Paris on the weekend.

Droughts and failed harvests, linked to a “super-charged” El Nino weather pattern, are hitting millions of Africans this month, from herdsmen in Somalia and crop farmers in Ethiopia to impoverished South Africans and Zimbabweans who face a steep rise in the price of imported bread and maize.

Africa has always been the continent most vulnerable to climate change, and the current crisis is a dramatic illustration of how evolving weather patterns can push low-income Africans over the edge into catastrophe.

El Nino is a periodic worldwide phenomenon caused by Pacific Ocean warming, but this year the pattern is more extreme than it has been for decades. The phenomenon is believed to be “super-charged” by global climate change, making it stronger and more intense than usual. In Africa, the effects are expected to persist through the first half of next year, and the droughts could be followed by floods in some countries as the extreme weather continues.

Ethiopia is the hardest-hit African country. An estimated 10.2 million people – more than one-tenth of its population – need humanitarian aid because they lack basic food after the latest failed harvests. The drought is said to be Ethiopia’s worst in 50 years, and the next possible harvest won’t be until next June.

“Every month since January has seen an increase in the number of malnourished Ethiopian children, with estimates stating that 400,000 children will face severe malnutrition in 2016,” said a report this month by the World Health Organization. “The situation is expected to worsen over the next eight months, and it will take more than a year for Ethiopia to recover.”

Across eastern and southern Africa, an estimated 11 million children are at risk of hunger, disease and lack of water because of the strengthening El Nino effect, according to Unicef, the United Nations agency for children. It warned that El Nino can lead to a rising death toll from malaria, cholera, diarrhea, dengue fever and other diseases.

Somalia is another badly hit African country, with an estimated three million people affected by crop failures and food shortages, Unicef says. Thousands of sheep and goats have been dying of starvation in parts of Somalia, and herding families have been slipping deeper into poverty and hunger.

In the same region, countries such as Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti have also been hit by drought this year. Eritrea is ruled by one of the most secretive regimes in the world and few aid workers are allowed in the country, but satellite photos have reportedly found that its crops are 50 per cent to 70 per cent below normal levels.

One aid agency, Save the Children, has warned the current drought in the Horn of Africa could turn into a repeat of the 2011 famine, in which hundreds of thousands died in Somalia and Kenya, if nothing is done.

Another agency, Oxfam, says the world must move faster than it did in the past to help drought-stricken regions of Africa. “In 2011, warnings were issued months in advance that rains had failed in the Horn of Africa and that people were becoming more and more vulnerable,” it said in a recent report. “Yet the response was slow and indecisive and as a result, millions of people suffered and lost their livelihoods, and more than 260,000 died. The same must not happen in 2016.”

In southern Africa, the damage caused by climate change this year is less dramatic than in the Horn of Africa, but it is still significant. In Zambia, for example, the lack of rainfall is contributing to disastrously shrinking levels of water at Lake Kariba, the reservoir that generates much of the country’s electricity. The declining water levels have resulted in severe cuts in electricity, which in turn have damaged Zambia’s crucial copper-mining industry.

In South Africa, farmers are facing millions of dollars in crop and livestock losses because of the worst drought since 1992. The country expects to import as much as four million tonnes of maize and 1.9 million tonnes of wheat, leading to higher prices for low-income South Africans who depend on cheap staple food.

Government officials are pleading with South Africans to conserve water by any means necessary. In cities such as Johannesburg, residents are banned from watering their gardens except at night, and they are prohibited from using water hoses to wash their cars.

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