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Drought: What next after El Niño? La Niña?

By Romain Loury

El Niño effects are still being felt, with dramatic consequences for agriculture. La Niña, now looming large, threatens to wreak further havoc on farming in Africa.

El nino

Sub-Saharan Africa’s harshest drought in 35 years was caused by El Niño and La Niña could result in intense rainfall and flooding © oxfam international 

El Niño occurs every 2 to 7 years and is associated with a band of warm water that develops on the surface of the Pacific Ocean around the coastline of South America. These events have an impact on climate around the world, although the nature of this impact varies by region; it causes drought in Southern Africa, the Caribbean, India and Indonesia, and flooding on the western coast of South America and in southern USA.

The latest El Niño event that began in late 2014 and ended in mid-2016 was one of the most intense on record, generating the hottest global temperatures in more than 130 years, sparking raging forest fires in Indonesia in 2015 and indirectly causing more than 100,000 deaths through pollution. Sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, experienced its harshest drought in 35 years.

El Niño’s impact on agriculture was so severe that more than 40 million Africans are still living in acute food insecurity. The hardest-hit regions were the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia), Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Lesotho, Madagascar and South Africa were also affected, although not to the same extent. In Zimbabwe alone, the number of people in need of food assistance will increase from 2.2 million in August 2016 to 4.1 million in January 2017, which represents 42% of the rural population. In Malawi, maize prices have skyrocketed: prices are 80% higher than 2015 and 172% above the 5-year average.

In early July 2016, FAO, IFAD and WFP estimated that US$4 billion (€3.58 billion) would be needed to meet the humanitarian cost of El Niño – with 80% of this sum going to food and agriculture alone. The Southern African Development Community, meanwhile, claims that €2.45 billion is needed to repair battered sections of the economy in Africa. The current funding shortfall stands at €2.18 billion.

But, with an even more ominous outlook, this funding gap is just the tip of the iceberg. Although the drought in Africa has eased a little, its effects are still being felt and the upcoming harvest is under threat. The last 2 years have been a disaster. Without action to minimise damage during the lean season to the next harvest in March 2017, 23 million Africans could be left dependent on food aid until mid-2018. Over 640,000 livestock deaths have also been reported across Africa due to the drought. FAO has therefore launched a rapid-impact action plan to provide seeds, fertiliser and tools to smallholder farmers in the worst-hit countries.

Experts are now looking beyond El Niño with equal concern, as the next phase in the cycle – La Niña – which occurs every 2 to 5 years, looms, bringing cooler surface temperatures in the Pacific. For those countries affected by El Niño, La Niña promises heavier rainfall – not necessarily good news. Intense rainfall is likely to cause flooding, leading to damaged crops and the prospect of water-borne livestock diseases.

FAO claims that, unless something is done, 100 million people worldwide could be affected by El Niño and La Niña. Meteorologists are still unsure whether La Niña will happen, or how intense it might be.

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