Southern and eastern Africa are in the grips of a historic drought blamed on El Niño that has put millions at risk of starvation, devastated croplands, and dried up rivers across the region.
The World Food Program estimates that up to 14 million people are facing hunger due to failed crops, skyrocketing commodity and food prices, and the lowest levels of precipitation in 35 years. Among the worst affected areas are Malawi, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe declared a state of emergency this week, following Lesotho, with as many as a quarter of the country's 13 million people in need of food aid, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Scenes of desperation played out in many drought-stricken parts of the country, where families are going weeks without a proper meal and bartering what little food they have. Others have accused authorities of punishing opponents of the government by denying them food aid — a claim denied by the government, according to the AP.
In Somalia, an estimated 3.7 million people will be "acutely food insecure" through 2016 and 58,300 children face death if they are not treated, Peter de Clercq, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, said in a statement.
A quarter of South Sudan's population is at risk, with 40,000 "on the brink of catastrophe" according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Ethiopia officials, meanwhile, are reporting that the drought — which has caused crop failures and decimated livestock herds — is even worse than 1984, according to the FAO. Then, conflict combined with famine left as many a 1 million people dead.
"We wandered for three months, losing every single animal apart from two donkeys," said Saido Ahmed Keyat, a 29-year-old mother of five, whose family had boasted 200 sheep and goats, 15 cattle, eight camels, and seven donkeys, according to Reuters. "All my children are malnourished. They need milk, they need many things."
The drought, which has hit nearly a dozen countries from Angola to South Africa, is a result of record-strength El Niño, which occurs every 3-5 years on average when the equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean warm significantly.
While El Niño is expected to lead to warmer-than-average temperatures and heavier rain in parts of the United States including parched California, it has been linked to drought in many parts of the world — from Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, and southern Africa
Simon J. Mason, the chief climate scientists at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), said that there has been "a lot of essentially useless rainfall over the South Indian Ocean, but unfortunately not very much over Madagascar, and less rainfall over the land."
"December was exceptionally dry in the southernmost part of the subcontinent — South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, parts of Botswana — and January has been very dry in the southeast, including Zimbabwe," he said. "There has been a lot rainfall over Namibia lately, sufficient to actually cause some flooding. But most of southern Africa has continued to be dry."
Anthony Barnston, IRI's chief forecaster, explained the link between El Niño in southern Africa and periodic drought is a "widely accepted fact among climate scientists."
"Warmed ocean temperature over the tropical Pacific cause more rainfall there, which triggers an increase in a poleward circulation cell called the Hadley circulation, which in turn causes the tendency for subsiding air and decreased rainfall at subtropical latitudes both north and south of the equator," he said.
Southern Africa lies along such a latitude, he added, and the strengthened Hadley circulation alters the strength and position of the jet streams that drive weather patterns.
"Some locations near the equator get more rainfall than normal during El Niño, while others have reduced rainfall," he said.
Barnston said El Niño, rather than climate change or even poor agriculture practices, was most likely responsible for the crisis – which could continue for several weeks or even months, since the forecast calls for below average rainfall through March.
But Mason said El Niño alone couldn't be blamed entirely for the food shortages. He also said persistent, warm temperatures prior to the drought and poor drought preparedness have contributed to the severity of food shortages.
"Because this is the summertime there, the dry conditions also mean that it has been very hot, and these high temperatures have been drying out the soil, which is not helping the crops," he said.
In Zimbabwe, Mason noted that the state of emergency was "partly because of El Niño, but also because of the economic crisis in the country."
"The agricultural sector there is still recovering from the political situation during the 2000s. Agricultural production plummeted in response to the land redistribution policies during the 2000s, and the economy as a whole suffered severely because of a loss of investor confidence and withdrawal of international investment," he said. "One can argue as to whose fault all this is, but country has become much more vulnerable to climate variability because of its inability to grow sufficient food for its population."
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