El Niño triggers meals disaster in Southern Africa

The primary three months of 2024 weren’t type to farmers in Southern Africa. Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe all skilled an unusually dry February and one of many leanest wet seasons in a long time. As crops died within the fields, a meals disaster loomed.

Felix Phikamiso, a farmer from the Ngabu conventional authority in south of Malawi, informed Dialogue Earth the solar had scorched his total maize subject, and he arrival of rain in mid-March couldn’t save the crop.

“Final yr, we didn’t harvest as a result of most of our gardens have been washed away by Cyclone Freddy induced floods,” says Phikamiso. “I don’t suppose replanting this time will yield one thing.”


In the meantime, to the north-west, in Zambia’s Japanese province, Janet Mwale watched helplessly because the maize she grew within the village of Chipwaira wilted and succumbed. Making use of prime dressing and basal fertilisers was not sufficient.

“We don’t know the way we are going to feed ourselves as a result of we solely depend on farming,” she tells Dialogue Earth. “The dry spell has put us in a decent nook.”

A regional tragedy

The brutal drought has been introduced on primarily by El Niño. This pure, recurring climate phenomenon raises floor temperatures throughout components of the Pacific Ocean. These hotter patches influence climate patterns globally, together with by decreasing rain ranges in Southern Africa.

El Niño and La Niña

El Niño is a local weather sample wherein the floor water of the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean warms to considerably above common. This impacts rainfall patterns and climate internationally, elevating temperatures globally for its period.

El Niño is a part of a phenomenon known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). El Niño occasions don’t happen on a daily schedule, however on common seem each two to seven years. The alternative, cooler part is known as La Niña.

Throughout La Niña, cooler-than-average sea temperatures are skilled within the central and jap equatorial Pacific. Like El Niño, it impacts patterns of rainfall and atmospheric strain worldwide.

The present actuality in Southern Africa grimly displays a November 2023 report by the Famine Early Warning Techniques Community. It predicted that El Niño would trigger scorching warmth and considerably below-average rainfall throughout giant swathes of Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Madagascar.

Moreover warning that El Niño would lead to a meagre 2024 harvest for Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe particularly, the report additionally anticipated the phenomenon to drive meals insecurity in Southern Africa till the early months of 2025.

A research by World Climate Attribution discovered that the drought was principally been pushed by El Niño moderately than local weather change. “Over the previous yr, attribution research have proven that many excessive climate occasions have been pushed by a mixture of each local weather change and El Niño”, stated Joyce Kimutai, an excessive climate researcher at Imperial Faculty London’s Grantham Institute. Nonetheless, “the Southern Africa drought seems to be a rarer instance of an occasion fuelled primarily by El Niño,” she added.

Because of the drought, the Famine Early Warning Techniques Community expects staple meals costs to be greater throughout the area than in each 2023 and the five-year common.

A mix of those excessive costs and low incomes is predicted to suppress family buying energy within the area.

The World Meals Programme’s February 2024 “Southern Africa Seasonal Monitor” report concurred, saying rainfall deficits throughout the yr’s first quarter would have substantial opposed impacts for harvests, and meals safety implications additional into 2024.

Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique hit onerous

The area’s political leaders have been talking loud and clear on the disaster.

In March, Malawian president Lazarus Chakwera declared a State of Catastrophe in 23 of the nation’s 28 districts. Shut to 2 million farming households had been affected, he said.

Maize provides two-thirds of Malawians’ calorie consumption, and Chakwera said that almost 750,00 hectares of the cereal crop have been affected, or 44.3% of the overall maize space. “This extent of harm would require near 600,000 metric tonnes of maize valued at MWK 357.6 billion [USD 205 million] for the humanitarian response,” he stated.

Maize can also be a staple in Zambia the place President Hakainde Hichilema stated 84 of 116 districts have been affected by drought, which had destroyed virtually half of Zambia’s 2.2-million-hectare maize crop.

Past agriculture, Hichilema additionally highlighted the cascading implications for water and power provides: “This drought is having devastating penalties on many sectors akin to agriculture, water availability, and power provide, jeopardising our nationwide meals safety and the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of individuals.”


Based on Hichilema, the drought can even influence hydropower, and the nation might expertise a deficit of 520 megawatts by December 2024.

Within the meantime, the Zambian president hopes assist funds devoted to agricultural manufacturing will ease meals stress. Nonetheless, it should seemingly take years for the nation to get better from the impacts, akin to on kids’s vitamin, of a drought of this magnitude.

In 2015-2016, Mozamique suffered its worst drought in 35 years, with crops and livestock badly hit, and 1.5 million individuals plunged into meals insecurity. This yr, El Niño-induced drought might lead to acute starvation for roughly 3.3 million within the nation by September. Mozambique can also be grappling with a battle that has flared up within the northern province of Cabo Delgado, additional jeopardising meals provides.

Adapt, educate, mitigate

Dialogue Earth consulted Horace Phiri, an agricultural economist and lecturer at Malawi’s Lilongwe College of Agriculture and Pure Assets (Luanar). He advocates for the recommendation and steering of “agricultural extension” staff, whose information could be utilized to ease the results of failed rains.

Phiri informed Dialogue Earth that different crops can typically be planted as an alternative of maize. “Totally different areas have totally different situations, so farmers should be totally conscious of what can work for them,” he says “That’s the reason farmers have to seek the advice of; they need to be cautious with the selection of seed by deciding on drought-resistant crops.”


Harmless Phangaphanga, who directs thinktank the Luanar Centre for Agriculture Analysis and Growth, says investments in agriculture will mitigate the impacts of future droughts. For instance, the proliferation of Malawi’s Anchor Farm agronomic schooling mannequin, in addition to progress on plans to scale up agriculture within the nation by creating “mega farms”. Phangaphanga additionally advises funding in irrigation and water-harvesting applied sciences, in addition to a transfer to rising winter crops, elevating drought-tolerant livestock and prioritising conservation-agriculture practices.

After all, mitigating and adapting to drought requires funding. On 20 Might, Angola’s president João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço launched the Southern African Growth Neighborhood’s regional humanitarian enchantment, calling on member states, the worldwide group and the personal sector to offer no less than USD 5.5 billion in assist. The intergovernmental coalition says greater than 61 million individuals within the area have been affected by the acute climate El Niño has introduced.

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