With the recent rash of water theft, massive beer shortages, and farmers selling water instead of growing crops, Californians can't be blamed for interpreting current weather conditions as a sign of a pending apocalyptic drought.
But it turns out that the very same force that may save California from turning into The Road could create truly cataclysmic drought and hunger for tens of millions in southern Africa, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
The prolonged warm weather pattern known as El Niño has been wreaking havoc on crops in the region and the UN's food relief program said in a press release that it has become "increasingly concerned" about the food security of an estimated 14 million people.
Perhaps the bleakest reality of the WFP's assessment is that El Niño seems to be affecting the region's most fertile areas.
"Driving through southern Zambia, I saw fields of crops severely stressed from lack of water and met farmers who are struggling to cope with a second season of erratic rains," said WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin. "Zambia is one of the biggest breadbaskets in the region and what's happening there gives serious cause for concern not only for Zambia itself but all countries in the region."
The WFP also estimates that more than 40 million rural and 9 million urban people in the region live in areas that are highly impacted by this year's El Niño, which they call "the strongest such weather event for more than three decades."
All of which is driving up food prices and compounding the environmental threats in the region. Maize prices in South Africa hit a record high on Monday, with the March contract for the white variety reaching $304 per ton, according to Thomson Reuters.
In fact, this year's shortage is so pronounced that most small farmers are struggling just to feed their families. "I'm particularly concerned that smallholders won't be able to harvest enough crops to feed their own families through the year, let alone to sell what little they can in order to cover school fees and other household needs," Cousin said.
The UN agency said that countries most affected by the recent lack of rain and massive crop failures are Malawi, where 2.8 million people are facing hunger, Madagascar (nearly 1.9 million people), and Zimbabwe (1.5 million), countries where chronic malnutrition rates are already among the worst in the world.
"One particularly worrying symptom of southern Africa's vulnerability to food and nutrition security is the alarming rate of chronic malnutrition," the WFP said. "Levels of stunting among children in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia are among the worst in the world. This affects children's physical growth, cognitive development, as well as their future health and productivity."