El Niño in Africa: Drought, Floods and Food Insecurity

Since July 2015 the El Niño weather phenomenon has taken hold across sub-Saharan Africa. From South Africa to Rwanda, El Niño has caused widespread destruction. The impacts upon food security and political stability have not gone unnoticed.


As East and Central African states meet in Kigali this week to discuss a broad range of issues, from agriculture to disaster risk management, the common concern over the El Niño weather phenomena has become the overarching focus of the conference. The term refers to the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, where warm ocean temperatures cause changes in the atmosphere and weather patterns. For equatorial Africa, El Niño triggers increased rainfall in the period from March to May. Further south in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, El Niño causes drier than normal conditions most notably in the period from December to February.

However, the problems of the last year have been the worst for several decades right across sub-Saharan Africa. In Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania, El Niño has been the cause of widespread flooding, causing the destruction of infrastructure and crops. For those states further north, such as Ethiopia and Sudan, humanitarian responses to draught conditions have been put into action. Drought is also causing devastation in large parts of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, and Madagascar, with the rainfall season so far being the driest in the last 35 years. The El Niño phenomenon is nothing new, but the scale and scope of the effects over the past year have been far beyond anything seen in recent memory.

One of the countries most noticeably effected by the climatic conditions has been South Africa. Drought emergencies have been called in most of its provinces, and maize production is down by 25% on the already poor production levels of last year. The result has been the relaxing of GM food laws and the ramping up of food imports from Mexico and the US. Predictions of a food crisis in October 2016 if the summer rains do not fall in Africa’s largest economy is particularly worrying, adding to the already turbulent political situation in South Africa.

The importance of the effects of climate change upon political stability are only just beginning to be fully recognised in the popular media. If we are to understand the current political challenges faced across sub-Saharan Africa, the El Niño weather phenomena and its devastating effects cannot be left out of the equation.

Kulaley, Kenya. Source: Oxfam East Africa, Wikimedia Commons. 


El Niño in Africa: Drought, Floods and Food Insecurity

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