El Niño Triggers Food Crisis in Southern Africa

El Niño Triggers Food Crisis in Southern Africa

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Felix Phikamiso, a farmer from the Ngabu traditional authority in the south of Malawi, said the sun had scorched his entire maize field, and the arrival of rain in mid-March could not save the crop.

“Last year, we did not harvest because most of our gardens were washed away by Cyclone Freddy-induced floods,” says Phikamiso. “I don’t think replanting this time will yield something.”

Meanwhile, to the northwest, in Zambia’s Eastern province, Janet Mwale watched helplessly as the maize she grew in the village of Chipwaira wilted and succumbed. Applying top dressing and basal fertilizers was not enough.

“We don’t know how we will feed ourselves because we only rely on farming,” she said. “The dry spell has put us in a tight corner.”

The brutal drought has been brought on primarily by El Niño. This natural, recurring weather phenomenon raises surface temperatures across parts of the Pacific Ocean. These warmer patches impact weather patterns globally, including by lowering rain levels in Southern Africa.

El Niño and La Niña
The current reality in Southern Africa grimly reflects a November 2023 report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. It predicted that El Niño would cause scorching heat and significantly below-average rainfall across large swathes of Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Madagascar.

Besides warning that El Niño would result in a meagre 2024 harvest for Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in particular, the report also expected the phenomenon to drive food insecurity in Southern Africa until the early months of 2025.

A study by World Weather Attribution found that the drought was mostly been driven by El Niño rather than climate change. “Over the past year, attribution studies have shown that many extreme weather events have been driven by a combination of both climate change and El Niño”, said Joyce Kimutai, an extreme weather researcher at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute. However, “the Southern Africa drought appears to be a rarer example of an event fuelled primarily by El Niño,” she added.

  El Nino not climate change driving southern Africa drought

Due to the drought, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network expects staple food prices to be higher across the region than in 2023 and the five-year average.

A combination of these high prices and low incomes is expected to suppress household purchasing power in the region.

The World Food Programme’s February 2024 “Southern Africa Seasonal Monitor” report concurred, saying rainfall deficits during the year’s first quarter would have substantial adverse impacts on harvests and food security implications further into 2024.

Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique Hit Hard
The region’s political leaders have been speaking loud and clear on the crisis.

In March, Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera declared a State of Disaster in 23 of the country’s 28 districts. He stated that close to two million farming households had been affected.

Maize supplies two-thirds of Malawians’ calorie intake, and Chakwera stated that nearly 750,000 hectares of the cereal crop had been affected, or 44.3% of the total maize area. “This extent of damage would require close to 600,000 metric tonnes of maize valued at $205 million for the humanitarian response,” he said.

Maize is also a staple in Zambia, where President Hakainde Hichilema said 84 of 116 districts have been affected by drought, which has destroyed almost half of the country’s 2.2-million-hectare maize crop.

Beyond agriculture, Hichilema also highlighted the cascading implications for water and energy supplies: “This drought is having devastating consequences on many sectors such as agriculture, water availability, and energy supply, jeopardizing our national food security and the livelihoods of millions of people.”

According to Hichilema, the drought will also impact hydropower, and the country could experience a deficit of 520 megawatts by December 2024.

In the meantime, the Zambian president hopes aid payments dedicated to agricultural production will ease food stress. However, it will likely take years for the country to recover from the impacts of a drought of this magnitude, such as on children’s nutrition.

In 2015-2016, Mozambique suffered its worst drought in 35 years, with crops and livestock badly hit and 1.5 million people plunged into food insecurity. This year, El Niño-induced drought could result in acute hunger for approximately 3.3 million in the country by September. Mozambique is also grappling with a conflict that has flared up in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, further jeopardizing food supplies.

Adapt, Educate, Mitigate
Horace Phiri, an agricultural economist and lecturer at Malawi’s Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), advocates for the advice and guidance of “agricultural extension” workers, whose knowledge can be applied to ease the effects of failed rains.

Phiri said that other crops can sometimes be planted instead of maize. “Different areas have different conditions, so farmers must be fully aware of what can work for them,” he says “That is why farmers need to consult; they should be cautious with the choice of seed by selecting drought-resistant crops.”

Innocent Phangaphanga, who directs thinktank the Luanar Centre for Agriculture Research and Development, says investments in agriculture will mitigate the impacts of future droughts. For example, the proliferation of Malawi’s Anchor Farm agronomic education model, as well as progress on plans to scale up agriculture in the country by creating “mega-farms.”

Phangaphanga also advises investment in irrigation and water-harvesting technologies, as well as a move to growing winter crops, raising drought-tolerant livestock, and prioritizing conservation-agriculture practices.

Of course, mitigating and adapting to drought requires funding. On 20 May, Angola’s president João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço launched the Southern African Development Community’s regional humanitarian appeal, calling on member states, the international community and the private sector to provide at least $5.5 billion in aid. The intergovernmental coalition says more than 61 million people in the region have been affected by the extreme weather El Niño has brought.

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