How an El Niño-Driven Drought Brought Hunger to Southern Africa

Esnart Chongani boils five small pumpkins over firewood outside her home in Makoka, a village in Zambia’s Chongwe District, not far from the capital, Lusaka. She tests to make sure they’re tender, drains the water, which she will save for later, and then carefully divides them into 12 portions as her family sits down for lunch. It’s a healthy dish, but there’s scarcely enough to go around, and this is the only meal any of them will eat today.

Chongani, 76, isn’t used to rationing. She’s the proud owner of a seven-acre farm that she has worked on for decades. Ordinarily, her family harvests more than two tons of maize in April. But this year, southern Africa was hit by its worst mid-season dry spell in over a century, and for the first time in her life, they have harvested nothing.

“I cannot remember anything like this,” says Chongani. “People are so hungry they are stealing food. The generosity of our community has disappeared, and people are too hungry even to attend church. One of our sons works at a rose farm, and we beg him to buy us food. But it is never enough.

“If we survive until the next harvest, it will be by the grace of God.”

A World Weather Attribution study found that El Niño — a recurring phenomenon that brings unusually warm waters to the Pacific Ocean and disrupts weather patterns around the world — was the key driver behind the record-breaking drought. Between January and March, when the rains usually fall on Chongani’s farm, heat waves and temperatures 9 degrees F. (5 degrees C) above average devastated southern Africa.

The region can scarcely handle the current reality, yet there are serious concerns that events like these are getting worse.

Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi each declared national disasters as crops failed in a region where 70 percent of smallholder farmers rely on rainfed agriculture for their livelihood. Food prices have risen up to 82 percent in some drought-affected areas, while water scarcity has also impacted livestock and destroyed farmland. According to a United Nations report, more than 18 million people are now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, with food insecurity levels set to increase dramatically during the regular lean season that typically starts in October. This year, the lean season could begin as early as July as provisions are depleted.

Analysts working for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network said that southern Africa, typically a net exporter of maize — the region’s staple food — would have to import 5 million tons to meet demand.

El Niño ended in April as the Pacific Ocean cooled, but this offers little reprieve. Drought has pushed southern Africa to its limits, and the rains won’t come again until October. The region can scarcely handle the current reality, yet there are serious concerns that events like this are getting worse.

Esnart Chongani and her family eat just one meal a day since drought ruined her crops.
Esnart Chongani and her family eat just one meal a day since drought ruined her crops. KENNEDY PHIRI

A 2021 assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found no clear evidence that climate change had impacted the strength of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events, which include the cooling La Niña phase as well. However, a 2023 study led by scientists from Australia’s CSIRO agency, using the latest generation of climate models, found that greenhouse gas emissions were likely making strong ENSO events more frequent and severe, with models showing a “human fingerprint” from 1960 onward.

“We’re estimating at around a 10 percent boost in El Niño and La Niña magnitude,” explains Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a coauthor on the study. “That doesn’t sound like a lot, but what it translates into is that the strongest events are becoming stronger, and these are the most destructive and hurtful.”

McPhaden emphasizes that while this link is “likely” rather than certain, there is “very strong evidence” that even if ENSO events themselves stay the same, global warming can still amplify their impacts, as has happened this year around the world.

“A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so when ENSO events lead to conditions that favor enhanced precipitation in a particular region, it can rain even harder,” he said. “Likewise with drought. It’s easier to dry out the soil in a warmer climate, so a severe ENSO-related drought can become an extreme drought.”

Some communities are eating grass to survive, while 17 Malawians were hospitalized after eating poisonous tubers in desperate hunger.

This is bad news for southern Africa, a region that is forecast to suffer the harshest impacts of climate change. Robert Vautard, co-chair of the IPCC working group that assesses the physical science basis of climate change, said that in scenarios with around 2 degrees C of warming by 2050, mean precipitation will decrease in southern Africa alongside increasing droughts. But he noted that some parts of the region will experience more extreme precipitation, with more intense cyclones expected over the eastern portion of southern Africa.

In the past two years, Malawi has suffered back-to-back climate disasters — one from too little rainfall and one from too much. Nearly 9 million people in the country are currently food insecure after the compounding impacts of El Niño and Cyclone Freddy, the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded, which brought six months of rain in just six days in March 2023, and caused flooding and landslides that killed 1,200 Malawians and ruined 440,000 acres of farmland. Some communities are eating grass seed to survive, while 17 Malawians were hospitalized in April after eating poisonous tubers in desperate hunger.

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Last December, Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture issued mitigation advice ahead of El Niño, such as using organic fertilizer to improve soil moisture retention. Malawi, like its neighbors, depends heavily on maize, a water-hungry crop, that is the staple food and is typically eaten at every meal. But this time, the government also instructed farmers to plant early-maturing and more drought-resistant crops alongside their maize.

Yet immense poverty, exacerbated by recent disasters, means many farmers lack the financial resources to invest in the seeds and equipment needed to respond to such instructions.

“Most farmers cannot do what the government says, they just rely on God,” said Steve Makungwa, a senior lecturer at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi. But even those who had the capacity to respond were unable to contend with El Niño.

“The crops were growing well, but after some weeks the dry spell began, and the maize and cowpeas dried up,” says a farmer.

Ellen Chikadza, 48, a subsistence farmer from Balaka, a township in southern Malawi, is a member of the Rural Women’s Assembly, a self-organized network of rural women that helps subsistence farmers adapt to climate change by demonstrating climate-smart farming techniques and providing seeds for more resilient crops. She did just as the government advised, but her crops were unable to handle the drought.

“I planted pigeon peas and cowpeas alongside my maize, and I also applied an organic manure mixture we made from maize bran, ash, and dung” she says. “The crops were growing well, but after some weeks the dry spell began, and the maize and cowpeas dried up.”

Undeterred, Chikadza uprooted her wilted maize and tried planting sweet potatoes and soybean seeds. But the potatoes soon dried up, and the soybeans yielded only premature pods. “Out of the four crops I planted this year, only the pigeon peas have survived,” she said. “But they will still need water to ripen. We still need rain.”

Climate-smart techniques like those employed by Chikadza and championed by the World Food Programme have had success building climate resilience in communities, but up against the most ferocious weather, they can be ineffective.

Farmers in Balaka, Malawi, had little to show for their soybean harvest, which produced only tiny beans.
Farmers in Balaka, Malawi, had little to show for their soybean harvest, which produced only tiny beans. SID STOCKING

Peter Johnston, a climate scientist at the University of Cape Town, says these low-cost adaptations are still important, as they increase a farmer’s resilience threshold during extreme weather events. “But if the [weather] event veers beyond that threshold, it’s over.”

To prevent this from happening, Johnston champions the merits of anticipatory action, a new way of approaching climate hazards where social or environmental triggers — such as a low rain threshold being breached during the first months of a rainy season — can help governments recognize where and when communities might need extra support. Officials could then quickly allocate extra resources, such as providing farmers with cash payments or early-maturing seeds, preventing the need for humanitarian aid later.

Studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization have shown that every dollar invested in anticipatory action can create a return for farming families of more than $7 in avoided loss and added benefits. Such actions are clearly cheaper than the crippling recovery costs of climatic disasters, but still require investment in sophisticated early-warning systems, data modeling, and providing the needed assistance. Support from the international community will be crucial in getting such schemes off the ground and avoiding future humanitarian crises.

People are running out of options. Hunger is forcing them into lines of work that lead to more environmental destruction.

At the U.N. climate conference in Dubai last December, advocates for developing countries won a major victory as world leaders unanimously agreed to set up a climate reparations fund. Through this “loss and damage” fund, wealthier, high-polluting countries would compensate the poorest nations that contribute the least to global warming but are being hit hardest by its impacts. Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi each hope to be among the first to withdraw from the fund.

“We need this money yesterday,” says Julius Ng’oma, National Coordinator for the Civil Society Network on Climate Change, a network promoting disaster risk management in Malawi. “We’ve suffered so many climate-related damages. A huge amount of money is required for us just to recover, let alone adapt.”

But six months after the Dubai conference, major questions remain over how the fund will work and where the money will come from. There are also uncertainties over what criteria will trigger access to the fund. Attributing southern Africa’s drought to El Niño could exclude affected countries from receiving aid for climate change damages, and so the findings of studies of the drought’s causes may be crucial.

In need of money to buy food, Stalubi Chimbalanga began cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell.
In need of money to buy food, Stalubi Chimbalanga began cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell. SID STOCKING

But the complex nature of attribution science feels detached from those suffering on the ground. People are running out of options. For now, hunger is only forcing them into lines of work that lead to more environmental destruction.

Families from Kandulu village in southern Malawi’s Mangochi District have given up on their farms after drought ruined their crops. With prices on the rise, and in desperate need of food, they’ve turned to cutting down trees, one of the few guaranteed ways to earn a living in a country where nearly every household relies on firewood and charcoal for cooking and heating. While deforestation itself causes around 10 percent of global warming and tree cutting for charcoal is illegal in Malawi, they’ve been left with little choice.

Stalubi Chimbalanga, 42, and his friends cycle for three hours from Kandulu to the forests on Magomero mountain, and three days later they return with bags of charcoal tied to their bikes. By 8 a.m. they’ve sold it all and made enough money to buy maize for a week.

“We know it’s illegal, and we know it’s bad for our environment,” says Stalubi. “But we have no other way of living.”

Source: Yale

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