> Mpho Tebele
Gaborone- The Southern African region is bracing for a humanitarian crisis as the worst ever drought induced by weather phenomenon El Niño, recorded in decades coupled with food shortages and disease outbreaks are underway, humanitarian agencies have warned..
In its recent report, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that a reduced agricultural output would follow on last year’s disappointing season, which has already contributed to higher food prices and “could acutely impact the food security situation in 2016.”
The situation is blamed on El Nino, which causes a warming in sea surface temperatures in the equatorial pacific and can lead to unusual heavy rainfalls or high temperatures resulting in drought.
Reports indicate that the 2015/2016 El Niño cycle is believed to be much stronger than the 1997 cycle and the worst ever recorded in 50 years.
IRIN reported that the worst affected countries in the region in 2016 will be Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
In the region, Botswana and South Africa have already felt the brunt of high temperatures of El Nino with health officials announcing recently that at least three and 11 people respectively have died as a result of heat waves while others are being hospitalized.
The two neighbouring countries recorded maximum temperatures of at least 44 and 45 degrees Celsius respectively. In Namibia, the Namibian Press Agency reported that severe storms damaged 31 houses, affecting nearly 100 people in recent weeks.
Zambia’s Agriculture Minister Given Lubinda is quoted as saying that a food assessment survey would soon be carried out to help the government plan ahead.
Zimbabwe’s agriculture ministry’s chief livestock specialist in Matebeleland South province, Simangaliphi Ngwabi, is quoted as saying that there was little water or pasture for cattle in the region, as dry conditions continues across the country.
The livestock department estimates that more than 350,000 cattle may face death due to drought in Matabeleland South.
FAO further warned that the season for planting maize in Southern Africa has already experienced delays, while crops sown stand to be negatively affected due to inadequate rains and higher temperatures.
“It’s the sixth week of the cropping season now and there’s not enough moisture in the soil,” said Shukri Ahmed, FAO Deputy Strategic Programme Leader – Resilience.
FAO observes that the region’s small-scale farmers are almost entirely dependent on rain, rendering their output highly susceptible to its variations.
“While El Niño’s impact depends highly on location and season – the impact of El Niño on agricultural production appears more muted in northern areas – past strong episodes have been associated with reduced production in several countries, including South Africa, which is the largest cereal producer in the sub-region and typically exports maize to neighbouring countries,” the report said.
This year, reports indicate that Southern Africa’s cereal harvest fell by almost a quarter, down to 34 million tonnes. Major food shortages are affecting Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Madagascar.
In Lesotho and Namibia, whose populations are tiny, 30 percent of rural people are classified as “food insecure,” which essentially means they lack access to food that’s sufficient to lead healthy, active lives.
After the previous year’s good harvest, “The crisis has been to an extent mitigated by the region’s grain reserves, but they are now largely exhausted,” OCHA humanitarian officer Yolanda Cowan told IRIN.
In another report released recently and titled “Southern Africa Humanitarian Outlook 2015/2016: Special Focus on El Niño,” the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Office states that serious concerns are mounting that Southern Africa will this coming season face another poor harvest, possibly a disastrous one.
The report says that abnormal rainfall patterns during 2014/2015 have contributed to a spike in food insecurity, which is currently affecting at least 27.4 m people regionally (and this excludes Angola, which has yet to publish official figures.
The report says this also excludes Madagascar, which did not present to SADC, but where 1.9 m people are food insecure, of which 460,000 people are severely so). In Malawi and Zimbabwe, 2.8 m and 1.5 m people are food insecure respectively.
For Southern Africa, the report says, El Niño usually means less rain, and this will likely impact the same countries that are already struggling through a season of drought, including Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“We are already seeing the impacts of El Niño, with poor rainfall being observed across the region (in some areas less than 25 per cent of the average), and South Africa declaring drought emergencies in five provinces. The economic impact will be severe: about 70 per cent of the region’s population depends on agriculture for employment,” says the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Office.
It states that the effects of El Niño will be felt across all sectors, including agricultural and livestock, food security, health, water and sanitation, and education, leading to economic contraction and changes in migration patterns as agricultural labour opportunities disappear.
Even with the predicted El Niño, significant floods are still expected: during the second half of the rainfall season (January to March 2016), floods are likely to occur in Malawi (where 230,000 people were displaced by floods in January 2015), Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar.
There is a 65 per cent chance that a cyclone will hit Madagascar; a phenomena to which Mozambique also remains perennially at risk.
Flash floods are also likely in urban areas characterized by poor infrastructure and drainage, and along major rivers, particularly the Zambezi. With the rains come water-borne diseases such as cholera, which is endemic in the region.
The report states that the region is particularly disaster-prone following a ruinous 2015: more than 1.8 m people were affected by mass floods in January and March, with 280,000 people displaced and at least 600 people killed – the largest numbers since the great floods of 2000. More than 20,000 cholera cases and 176 deaths have been reported in 2015 alone, with outbreaks currently affecting Mozambique and Tanzania.
Action Plan for Southern Africa
The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Office has expressed concern that the region is ill prepared.
“Only half of countries have updated contingency plans, while the rest have outdated plans or none at all.
“Countries need to update and finalize their plans as a matter of priority, and these plans need to expand on likely humanitarian scenarios and resource available and required.
“Many countries require financial and technical assistance from the humanitarian community to prepare and start responding,” the UN advised.
For its part, FAO advised that to reduce the adverse effects of El Niño, FAO has already triggered several interventions across southern Africa that are also building on existing programmes following last season’s reduced production.
“FAO is working on a twin track approach with governments and other partners across the sub-region to address both the immediate and longer term needs. Appropriate crop and livestock interventions intended to minimize the effects are already being up-scaled,” said David Phiri, FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa.
The organization said focus of immediate interventions includes supporting farmers by providing drought tolerant crops, seeds and livestock feed and carrying out vaccinations.
The food organization is also supporting longer-term resilience-building approaches among vulnerable groups, including the rehabilitation of irrigation systems, improving farmers’ access to rural finance, and supporting wider use of climate-smart agricultural technologies.
Several countries have already produced national plans that address the impact of El Niño on agriculture.
Innovative interventions implemented in southern Africa in recent years have been particularly successful, FAO said.
It added that many of these good practices, including the rapid expansion of market-based interventions, non-conditional cash transfers and vouchers, adoption of climate smart technologies for both livestock and crop production systems, have been used to good effect in other crises.
“We are grateful for the contributions made by the development partners so far, but there are still significant funding shortfalls. We will need to rapidly adopt and scale up the innovations that have proved successful in the past,” said Phiri.
“I suspect governments across the region have not made the necessary infrastructural investments,” World Food Programme spokesman David Orr is quoted as saying.
He added that “there needs to be greater investment in all sorts of agricultural schemes, from water harvesting to conservation farming.”
He advised that Governments will have to respond this coming year by importing commercial food from outside the region, but are facing tightening budgets.
Many have economies dependent on commodity exports, and have felt the pinch of the global downturn in prices.