El Niño may be reaching its peak but in southern Africa it’s still triggering hunger and loss.
An estimated 14 million people face food shortages in more than ten countries, the United Nations World Food Program announced this week. The outlook for the coming months, according to the WFP, is “alarming” since El Niño has exacerbated a crippling drought interrupting the rainy season used for planting much needed crops.
The drought is unlikely to improve any time soon, experts reached said, because in southern Africa El Niño events are associated with dry weather. “And this year’s El Niño is among the three strongest events in the past 100 years,” said Bradfield Lyon, a climate analyst and associate research professor at the University of Maine.
El Niño occurs when ocean temperatures across the equatorial Pacific are abnormally warm, driving extreme weather events globally. More than 40 million rural and 9 million urban people in southern Africa live in geographic zones that are highly exposed to the fallout from El Niño, according to WFP food security assessments.
Lyon explained that when rainfall is lacking, soils tend to dry out, which increases the chances of heat waves developing, further exacerbating the drought conditions already in place. “That is very likely happening this year,” he told ThinkProgress.
The drought has led to reduced water availability, delayed planting, permanently wilted corps, and livestock mortality, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We see some areas recording less than ten days of rainfall (from) November to present,” said Wassila Thiaw, team lead at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, in an interview with ThinkProgress.
Thiaw explained that El Niño may have already reached its peak — as it usually happens at this time of the year — but it’s still likely to remain through the bulk of the rainfall season that goes from December through February. “El Niño is still going to be present in February and March, so the chance for recovery is very, very slim,” he said while referring to the drought.
But for recovery to begin, the damages caused by drought need to cease. And that’s not happening in southern Africa. In fact, as some researchers said, recent rainfall could be on par with the severe drought of the early 1990s. Zimbabwe media reported Tuesday more than 1,000 cattle deaths as a result of inadequate water and a shortage of pastures.
In addition, the world’s largest man-made reservoir, the Kariba Dam, located in between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is at 12 percent capacity, according to published reports. This means hydro plants in the area also have little water to operate.
Meanwhile, food prices across southern Africa have increased following reduced production and availability, according to the WFP. The price of maize, what the agency described as the staple for most of the region, is 73 percent higher in Malawi than the three-year average for this time of year.
Malawi, the WFP said, is the worst-affected country in the area due to last year’s poor rain and 2.8 million people facing hunger. Madagascar has nearly 1.9 million people in similar dire conditions. Zimbabwe, also among the worst-hit, has 1.5 million people trying to cope with last year’s harvest that was reduced by half after a massive crop failure.
“The impact of El Niño and global warming on drought and food security have to be looked at very carefully,” said Raghu Murtugudde, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland. He said the strength of this El Niño can’t be directly associated with man-made global warming. However, “we know that ocean warming is interacting with El Niño, but exactly what it’s doing to the life cycle of El Niño, we’ll have to wait a few more years to figure it out.”
Forecasters have reported however, that warming ocean temperatures linked to climate change could make a strong El Niño twice as likely.
But even without El Niño, researchers like Lyon and others say climate change caused by increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will serve to raise temperatures generally, which will further increase the severity of droughts. “Upward temperature trends over the past several decades have already been observed across many southern Africa locations, and these are expected to continue,” said Lyon.
What’s more, scientific evidence showing that this warming trend is happening worldwide is mounting, too. On Wednesday, NOAA and NASA announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record, globally.