Southern Africa: El Niño brings drought and floods, affecting the most vulnerable in southern Africa

Rome – Kaponde Likando does not know how his family will survive until the next farming season. “We’re not going to have anything (to harvest),” said the 60-year-old from Chingobe village in southern Zambia after his maize, sorghum, groundnuts and sweet potatoes failed. “This has been the exact opposite of what we expected.”

He is among 9.8 million people in Zambia who have been affected by a severe drought linked to the lingering effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon.

Likando, who is married with five children, now faces some grim choices.

“Our hope … we might expect to sell some of our animals so we can buy corn for food (consumption),” he said.

Across southern Africa, the current El Niño has dealt a devastating blow to some of the world’s hungriest and most fragile communities, where 70% of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihoods

The problem is, once that food runs out, with his livestock gone, there will be nothing standing between his family and starvation.

Likando’s plight is not limited to Zambians.

Across southern Africa, the current El Niño has dealt a devastating blow to some of the world’s hungriest and most fragile communities, with 70% of the population dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.

From Angola to Zimbabwe, it has left normally fertile land parched, disrupted production of staples such as maize, and curtailed people’s access to food as stocks dwindle as prices rise.

The three hardest hit countries – Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi – have declared drought disasters. They face extensive crop losses, with between 40% and 80% of their maize harvest decimated.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) says that across the three countries, nearly five million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kato Kasingabalwa faces the other extreme of El Niño’s influence.

He lost everything, including his maize and rice harvests, in widespread flooding in Uvira, eastern Congo, after torrential rains caused Lake Tanganyika to overflow.

He and his five children have had to move three times to escape rising water levels, living in a temporary shelter on a vacant piece of land along with many other families whose homes have also been washed away.

Over a million people are estimated to have been affected by the floods in the DRC, including many who, like Kasingabalwa, have been displaced, while homes, schools and large areas of farmland have been destroyed.

“The flood caught us by surprise,” Kasingabalwa said.

“The water level is so high. We’ve been forced to move to places we couldn’t have imagined settling in. Right now the family is in serious trouble. Look at the condition of my house there.

“I can’t even begin to describe the condition my family members are in. Some have wounds caused by water infections. The water is full and keeps coming closer to our settlement.

“It’s confusing because in the morning you wake up and see the water level drop, but in the evening the waves from the lake push the water back up and we rush to move our belongings. That worries us the most.

“I’m a farmer and all our crops and seeds were gone.”

Although this El Niño cycle is coming to an end, the consequences will continue for months to come.

At an extraordinary Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit on the current crisis in May, leaders said 61 million people in the region were affected by El Niño.

They launched a US$5.5 billion appeal to meet the urgent humanitarian needs, and a UN-led event will take place in Pretoria, South Africa, on June 5 to raise funds for the response.

The meeting was convened by UN Assistant Secretary-General Reena Ghelani, the Climate Crisis Coordinator for the El Niño/La Niña Response, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), WFP, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UNHCR Office in Pretoria.

El Niño events, which typically occur every two to seven years, greatly influence temperature and precipitation in many parts of the world, raising the global average temperature and driving extreme weather events, including droughts, floods and storms.

It is a natural phenomenon – a disruption of rainfall patterns caused by the warming of the surface waters of the eastern Pacific – although recent studies suggest that global warming may lead to stronger El Niño events.

In fact, the most recent El Niño event is one of the five strongest on record.

“Climate change has affected us,” Likando said. “When we see this drought, it’s more than previous years.”

WFP says these climate extremes are a reminder of the urgent need to increase investment in resilience-building activities, particularly in southern Africa, so that communities can be strengthened with climate adaptation solutions to mitigate, reduce and absorb the effects of such shocks.

WFP anticipated the effects of the El Niño season as soon as the forecasts were released in 2023, enabling pre-emptive action plans and early warning messages to be prepared.

But the UN agency’s ability to respond to the emergency and avert a famine has been limited after its appeal for funding was ignored earlier this year.

“El Niño disproportionately affects women and girls,” said Dr. Menghestab Haile, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa.

Haile explained that this is because it is often women who have left the safety of their homes to walk “for miles to find wood and food”, while girls are the first to leave schools to help their mothers.

“We need irrigation,” added Hailem, who has a Ph.D. in meteorology.

“Water, water, water – if we had the resources to expand irrigation, farmers could produce more food.”

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