On World Water Day: El Nino Threatens Food Security in Africa

Posted by Shannon Smith
March 22, 2016
An Aerial View Shows Flood Waters in Chokwe, Mozambique.

As the world observes World Water Day on March 22, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa face water-related crises:  too little, too much, or in a few cases both.

The second worst El Niño episode in history has hit Africa with devastating force, causing extensive drought and flooding that are in turn causing or exacerbating widespread hunger.  El Niño is a complex weather pattern that stems from variations in ocean temperatures; it is not necessarily related to global climate change, but its effects may be harbingers of things to come. According to estimates, El Niño-related floods and drought will leave 28 million Africans in need of emergency food assistance in the coming months.  Conditions are expected to deteriorate in the Horn of Africa through early summer 2016, and into 2017 in southern Africa. Weak harvests last year, chronic vulnerability due to poverty, malnutrition, and HIV/AIDS, and economies already reeling from currency devaluations and lower commodity prices will all compound the crisis.

Ethiopia has suffered some of the most severe impacts of El Niño thus far this year. The Government of Ethiopia together with the International Donor Assistance Group has identified over 10 million people already in need of emergency food assistance in 2016. In response, the Ethiopian government provided $380 million towards humanitarian assistance, second only to the United States. This is not the Ethiopia of the 1980s when automatically drought meant famine: while food security is at critical levels, we are not witnessing the utter catastrophe of the past because of the safety nets that the government and international community have created together.

In southern Africa, nearly 11 million people will require food assistance due to severe droughts. Vast tracts of Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia are already experiencing their driest weather since 1981.  Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and most provinces in South Africa have declared a state of disaster. Water shortages are devastating crops, killing livestock, and leaving people more vulnerable to disease.

El Niño is forecast to weaken through the spring and transition to a neutral phase this summer, but the chance of a rapid switch to El Nino’s sister, La Niña, in the fall is increasing.  While considerable uncertainty remains, history indicates that a switch to La Niña would increase the likelihood of further drought in the Horn of Africa.

The U.S. Government has provided early and strong support to El Niño-affected countries. Since October 2014, the United States has provided more than $546 million in humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia, including food, nutrition, emergency medical care, seeds, and water, sanitation, and hygiene support.  In southern Africa, USAID has invested $18 million since October 2014 in disaster risk reduction programs, and contributed $101 million in food assistance to meet immediate needs and address chronic hunger.  The United States mobilized food assistance and activated emergency funds to help households meet their immediate needs without having to sell assets -- such as livestock -- that provide a source of income and nutrition now and in the future.

The U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future, has supported programs to help farmers increase their productivity and income by adapting to changing weather patterns.  We have also been at the forefront of building resilience among the world’s poorest communities facing recurrent crises, and facilitating policy discussions with partner countries on water management.

The U.S. response has only begun to meet the estimated need.  The UN has noted that 2016 needs and funding requirements outlined for Ethiopia–- including a $1.4 billion appeal to support humanitarian activities– are likely well below actual requirements. 

The international response is complicated by the fact that weather phenomena are difficult to predict and result in different consequences across different regions.  Experts are not predicting large-scale famine resulting from El Niño or La Niña thanks to years of international investment, led by the United States, in improved safety nets, early warning analysis, and the kinds of water conservation and resilience planning that are the hallmarks of World Water Day.  For Africa’s current crisis, we have the information and the response mechanisms in place to prevent an already dire situation from becoming a worse disaster.  But information without action will not save lives.  With countries facing the driest years in three and a half decades, the world cannot simply mark World Water Day on a calendar: we must act -– together, today to make a difference.  

About the Author: Shannon Smith is the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs (AF) at the U.S. Department of State

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