An unwanted guest: El Niño and Africa in 2016

By Obi Anyadike

Editor-at-Large and Africa Editor

El Niño is the largely unwanted Christmas gift – a warming of the tropical Pacific causing drought and floods that will peak at the end of this month, but will impact weather systems around the globe into 2016.

This year’s El Niño has been steadily gaining strength since March. It’s likely to be one of the most extreme events of this nature yet seen, with the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, warning that “millions will be impacted”.

El Niño’s links with drought in southern Africa and the Horn, and with heavy rains in East Africa, are well-established. Across the rest of the continent the climate connection is less clear. Other factors come into play, such as temperatures in the North Atlantic for West Africa’s weather, according to Richard Choularton, the World Food Programme’s chief of climate resilience for food.

What makes El Niño particularly bad news in 2016 is that it will be a second tough year in a row for farmers and pastoralists in Southern Africa and the Horn – and to a lesser extent East Africa. Eighty percent of their populations are dependent on agriculture. Their ability to cope with adversity has been stretched. Now they will be facing potentially an even sterner test.  

So what does that really mean for these vulnerable regions in the coming year? With the perils of weather forecasting acknowledged, here’s a snapshot.

Southern Africa:

More than 30 million people are already “food insecure” – lacking access to enough food to lead healthy lives as result of a poor harvest earlier this year. South Africa’s maize production has traditionally been the hedge against regional shortfalls. But this year drought was declared in five provinces and output dropped by 30 percent.

The fear is that the region will experience another El Niño-induced poor harvest, “possibly a disastrous one”, according to OCHA. Emergency maize stocks are depleted, and maize prices are climbing. Governments hard hit by the global fall in commodity prices, on which their economies depend, will need to find the money to buy maize on the international market. South Africa alone is expecting to import 750,000 tonnes to meet its needs.

Despite Southern Africa being a largely middle-income region, its rural populations historically have some of the world’s worst poverty indicators. Even in economic powerhouse South Africa, almost a quarter of all children under five are stunted. That level of deprivation limits people’s ability to bounce back after a shock. 

See: Southern Africa’s food crisis – from bad to worse

The worst-affected countries in 2016 will be Angola, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique. “Everyone is preparing for drought,” said Choularton. WFP, for example, is putting money and programmes in place in Zimbabwe, in anticipation of worse trouble to come, part of its new FoodSECuRE policy approach.

Further north, in the Horn and East Africa, which have more complicated climate and agricultural systems, the El Niño picture is less clear.

The Horn:

Poor rains have hit parts of Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia – but international media coverage has tended to focus on Ethiopia. In part that’s because a lazy connection gets drawn with the 1984 famine, but also because the numbers in need are so large. 

See: How bad is the drought in Ethiopia?

With the failure of both the Belg rains and the usually reliable Kiremt summer rains, “the worst drought in Ethiopia for 50 years is happening right now,” Save the Children said in a statement. The hardest-hit regions are in the north and east of the country. The UN believes 15 million people will face food shortages in 2016, with the next harvest not expected until June. Ethiopia has a population of close to 100 million. 

See: Ready or not – drought tests Ethiopia

Nearly eight million people are already under the national welfare Productive Safety Net Programme*. The government has committed $192 million to help combat the crisis, “but more help is urgently needed from donors and the international community to support the government to stop the situation from deteriorating further,” said Save the Children.

Meanwhile, heavy rains and flooding are predicted for Ethiopia’s low lying south and east. The Shebelle river basin and the easternmost Somali region are particular areas of concern, with flooding projected to affect 315,000 people. Flooding not only displaces people, but destroys infrastructure – washing away roads and bridges, affecting market access, and inundating schools and clinics.

Somalia experiences the same dual risks of drought and flooding – in a country characterised by some of the worst humanitarian and human development indicators in the world. Drought has singed the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland, while heavy rains in the south and centre of the country have caused floods that OCHA estimates could affect some 900,000 people.

Even without El Niño about 3.2 million Somalis are in need of life-saving and livelihood support, while over 1.1 million people are internally displaced. 

East Africa:

Short rains, in the right amount and at the right time – from October to December – allow the regeneration of pasture, improve crop conditions and boost casual agricultural labour opportunities for poor households. 

Too much – if the rains run into January and February – then animals that are already weak from the long dry season will succumb to exposure. Heavy rains can also trigger waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid. Livestock become susceptible to Rift Valley Fever (RVF) – a viral mosquito-borne disease.  

El Niño conditions coupled with the warming of the Indian Ocean along the East African coastline is generating “highly enhanced rainfall”, according to the Kenya Metrological Department. The government’s contingency plan anticipated one million people at risk from flooding. The plan calls for the provision of relief seeds for replanting and subsidised fertilizer, as well as large-scale vaccination against RVF.

In Uganda, the government has called on 800,000 people regarded as at risk from landslides in mountainous regions to relocate to safer areas, where they will be supported with relief supplies. A 2,000-strong "Civil-Military Disaster Response Group" has been deployed to the Mount Elgon and Mount Rwenzori regions, as well as flood-prone areas in eastern, southwestern and western Uganda.

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Productive Safety Net Programme as the Protective Safety Net Programme