El Nino-linked drought threatens energy and food supplies with millions at risk

By Isaac M April 3, 2024

Zimbabwe is on the brink of declaring a national disaster as a deepening drought leaves millions facing hunger.

A delayed start to the rainy season, followed by general low rainfall, has parching a stretch of land from Angola in the west to Mozambique in the east, devastating harvests relied on by tens of millions and withering waterways.

A huge area across the Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana border has just endured its driest February in decades, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP).

Regional experts say the warming El Nino climate pattern currently releasing heat from the Pacific has brought below average rainfall to southern Africa.

But the experts say this is amplifying the existing impacts of climate change, which is raising temperatures in the region.

A huge swathe of southern Africa is suffering from abnormally dry conditions. Pic: NOAA/USAID/ EWS-NET
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A huge swathe of southern Africa is suffering from abnormally dry conditions. Pic: NOAA/USAID/ EWS-NET

“We can’t seem to catch a break,” said Tomson Phiri, WFP spokesperson for southern Africa.

The lack of rain during a critical phase of the crop cycle exacerbated existing structural problems driving hunger, including poverty and a heavy dependency on rainfed agriculture, he said.

He added: “As a result, millions of people across the region were facing a food emergency at the height of the lean season between January and March.

“The situation will only get worse before it gets better. Unless actors respond urgently and at scale, the number of people in need will rise exponentially.”

An estimated nine million people have been impacted by the drought in Malawi, along with more than six million in Zambia, UNICEF said.

Both countries declared a state of emergency last month.

Officials in Zimbabwe are considering following suit, where approximately 2.7 million people are at risk of hunger.

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Zimbabwe projected food security conditions, March-May 2024. Pic: FEWS.NET
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Much of Zimbabwe is on track for ‘crisis’ levels of food insecurity. Pic: FEWS.NET

Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema said that almost half of the two million hectares of his country’s staple corn crop have been destroyed.

In Zimbabwe’s notoriously dry Mangwe region, even drought resistant crops like the cereal grain sorghum and pearl millet have failed to survive this year’s hot and dry conditions.

David Gwapedza, a water resources researcher at Rhodes University in South Africa, said water shortages in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, “may lead to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera”.

If the drought deepens in Zimbabwe and Zambia, which depend on hydroelectric power, it risks depleting the Zambezi River and “could reduce energy supply to critical sectors such as industry”, he warned.

There are different types of droughts and causes are complex and varied.

But scientists at World Weather Attribution – which assesses the causes of extreme weather – are confident climate change is making drought worse in southern Africa.

Sarah Champion MP, chair of the International Development Committee (IDC) of cross-party MPs, said the committee has heard “disturbing evidence” that drought is becoming “incessant and continuous” in southern African countries like Malawi.

The result is “growing, ongoing food insecurity and malnutrition that is stunting children, with a bitter legacy for generations”, she said.

“Zimbabwe, once the ‘bread basket of Africa’, now also faces this chronic food insecurity as a result of the climate change that’s bringing disastrous drought and floods.”

She said the UK’s Foreign and Development Office (FCDO) is “instrumental” in promoting ‘climate smart’ agricultural practices.

But unless small scale farmers can access these resources, “we will see a lot of mortality”, she warned.

Global hunger levels have fallen in recent decades.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated one in three people in developing countries suffered from hunger in 1970. This figure plunged to one in 10 people in 2015, though lately progress has slowed.

Sub-Saharan Africa has consistently suffered the highest rates of undernourishment, which have even risen since 2010.

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