El Niño weather – a result of climate change or variability?

Extreme weather conditions associated with the El Niño effect have affected the food security situation in southern Africa.

According to the SADC Early Warning and Vulnerability Assessment Systems, at least 27 million people, about nine percent of the SADC population, are food insecure as a result of the poor harvest in 2015/16 farming season.

History shows that the El Niño effect normally causes droughts in southern Africa and floods in other parts of the world.

But what exactly causes an El Niño?

El Niño is a naturally occurring climate cycle, which develops as the warm waters of the tropical Pacific Ocean spread eastwards in concert with shifting patterns of atmospheric pressure, eventually affecting global climate.

Climate change describes alteration in the state of the climate (mainly temperature, rainfall, radiation, wind and cloud cover) that persists for an extended period, typically for several decades up to centuries, and the climate does not necessarily return to its original state.

In contrast, climate “variability” is the temporary phenomena that occur on timescales ranging from a few minutes to a decade or more.

Variability arises from mechanisms within the climate system and results in properties that eventually go back to where they were.

The El Niño cycle experienced in the southern African region indicates variability rather than climate change.

The Southern Africa Environment Outlook Report of 2008 highlighted that many regions of the global tropics and sub-tropics exhibit climate anomalies that correlate with the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO can manifest itself as either El Niño or La Niña, the latter associated with warm and cool sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific. During most El Niño episodes, drought conditions usually prevail over the bulk of southern Africa while La Niña conditions often result in heavy rainfall across the region.

The Zambezi Environment Outlook 2015 notes that prior to the 1980s, strong El Niño events occurred every 10 to 20 years on average. However, since 1980 droughts linked to El Niño have become stronger.

Some of the recent droughts in the region have occurred in 1982/83; 1991/92; 1994/95; 1997/98 and between the 2001 and 2003 rainfall seasons.

The El Niño being experienced in the 2015/16 agricultural season is believed to be much stronger than the 1997 cycle and the worst recorded in 50 years.

The dry spell has already affected the region resulting in crop failures, loss of livestock and reduction of water levels in dams.

For example, the continued decline of water levels in the Kariba Dam between Zambia and Zimbabwe is now an issue of major concern, as this is affecting fishing and hydropower generation activities.

The Zambezi River Authority reported that water levels in Kariba had reduced to only 12 percent of capacity on 1 February compared to the 53 percent recorded on the same date the previous year.

In October 2015, the United Republic of Tanzania was forced to switch off all its hydropower plants due to low water levels in the country’s dams. As a result of the low water levels, hydro-electricity generation had fallen to 20 percent of capacity, making it difficult for the dams to operate.

The food security outlook update produced by the Famine Early Warning System Network shows that southern Africa is likely to experience significant reductions in crop production in 2016, as a result of inadequate rainfall.

The most affected countries that include, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe experienced a late start to the rainfall season.

As this situation is not new to southern Africa, communities have in the past implemented a number of climate resilience strategies to curb the effects of drought.

For example, the weather insurance against drought for smallholder farmers has proved successful in Malawi.

The insurance measures the amount of rain recorded at local meteorological stations and in case of a severe drought, it is assumes that all farmers within a 20 to 30 km radius are similarly affected.

The programme is similar to the safety net used traditionally in Zimbabwe to cushion communities in times of drought called ‘zunde ramambo’ (the chief’s granary).

This is a concept that boosts communities’ grain reserves, which can then be used to help those in need during droughts.

The growing of drought-resistant crops such as cassava, sorghum and millet has helped communities to get better harvests during periods of drought.

At the regional level, SADC has established a team to coordinate a regional response to the impacts of the 2015/2016 El-Niño phenomenon on livelihoods in close collaboration with member states.

The response team, which is made up of the SADC Secretariat, and United Nations Agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), was established in response to a directive by the SADC Council of Ministers that met in mid-March in Gaborone, Botswana.

The team is preparing a regional drought appeal for assistance aimed at mobilising resources to meet the needs of people requiring humanitarian support in the region.

Other key responsibilities of the team include coordinating the systems and institutional requirements for an effective importation and distribution programme of food and non-food commodities in the SADC region to mitigate the impacts of the El Niño event of 2016. – SADC Today

June 2016
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