El Niño, Not Climate Change, Blamed for Severe Southern Africa Drought

Southern Africa faces severe drought attributed to El Niño, raising questions about climate change aid eligibility. Urgent adaptation efforts needed to address natural and human-induced climate impacts.

Quadri Adejumo
New Update
El Niño, Not Climate Change, Blamed for Severe Southern Africa Drought

El Niño, Not Climate Change, Blamed for Severe Southern Africa Drought

Scientists have attributed the current severe drought in southern Africa to the El Niño weather phenomenon, rather than climate change. This raises questions about the eligibility of the affected regions for aid from the UN's loss and damage fund, which is intended to help countries cope with the impacts of climate change.

The El Niño-driven drought, which began in mid- to late 2023, has already decimated farming in the region, leading to crop shortfalls and rising commodity prices. Around 40-50 million people in 16 countries are affected by the climate shocks that have brought drought to southern Africa, including flooding in Kenya. "The situation is dire, with the impact on women and girls being a particular concern," UN officials warned.

Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have declared national disasters due to the drought, which has led to widespread crop failures. Forecasts indicate significantly below-average harvests across the region, with Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia facing severe food shortages. Zimbabwe needs $2 billion to fight hunger, while Malawi requires over $200 million to avert famine. The region is expected to have a supply gap for staple cereals, and some countries may have to source grain from as far as South America.

The El Niño-induced drought and heatwave have also impacted South Africa's 2023-24 summer grains and oilseed harvest. The Crop Estimates Committee's data shows a mild upward adjustment in the crop size, but the estimated harvest of 16 million tonnes is still down 20% from the previous season. The white and yellow maize harvests are expected to be lower, with white maize down 25% and yellow maize down 13% year-on-year. While the expected harvest of 13.3 million tonnes will be sufficient to meet South Africa's annual maize consumption, the Southern African regional demand, particularly for white maize, is a significant upside driver of prices.

Why this matters: The attribution of the severe drought to El Niño rather than climate change highlights the complexities involved in determining the causes of extreme weather events and their eligibility for climate-related financial assistance. The crisis in southern Africa underscores the urgent need for long-term adaptation efforts to address the impacts of both natural climate variability and human-induced climate change on vulnerable populations.

UN officials are calling for swift action and more funding to combat the crisis, as a La Niña phenomenon is expected later this year, which could bring more extreme weather. The UN is providing assistance to farmers and communities, such as distributing drought-resistant crops and backyard garden kits, to help them cope with the impacts. "More long-term adaptation efforts are needed to address the climate crisis," the officials emphasized. The drought's impact on South Africa's agricultural production also raises concerns about meeting regional food demands, with options like importing white maize from Mexico or the United States being explored by analysts as a crisis for white maize.

Key Takeaways

  • Drought in southern Africa attributed to El Niño, not climate change
  • 40-50 million people affected, with crop failures and food shortages
  • Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe declare national disasters due to drought
  • South Africa's maize harvest down 20%, raising regional food security concerns
  • UN calls for urgent action and adaptation efforts to address climate crisis