Southern Africa is running dry

Forty one million people in the SADC region of Africa are in need of humanitarian food aid. The worst drought in 35 years is a result of a changing climate and Africa will need to adapt to this new normal.

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 Africa needs to start planning for a world where extreme weather is the new normal. (Image: World Vision)

Sulaiman Philip

Across the Southern African Development Community (SADC) fields are barren, rivers have long dried up and livestock is left neglected and bedraggled as the territory suffers the worst drought in the last 35 years.

Four SADC states – Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe – have declared national emergencies. Mozambique has declared a 90-day red alert in some areas. Seven of South Africa’s nine provinces are drought disaster areas. According to a recently released SADC report, <em>Vulnerability Assessment Results</em>, 2.7 million children are suffering from acute malnutrition; 41 million people face food insecurity and of those, 21 million people need immediate assistance.

In June, Botswana’s president and SADC chairperson, Ian Khama, called on the international community to provide humanitarian aid. At the beginning of August he will begin the formal process of declaring the region a disaster area.

The designation as a disaster zone unlocks substantial humanitarian aid and funding from the international community. This shock funding allows governments to pay for disaster relief without tapping into national reserves or borrowing.

In a statement released by SADC he said that the 2016 harvest would not feed the region and 23 million people faced imminent starvation. Khama will appeal for $2.7-billion (R38-billion) worth of humanitarian and drought relief, and to help strengthen the region’s safety net.

“The appeal will be a formal request to the international community to provide assistance to affected member states,” he said. “The severe drought conditions have already taken [their] toll on lives and livelihoods and the situation could deteriorate further if urgent assistance is not provided.”

Drought effects

In 2015, South Africa – traditionally the bread basket of the region – received the lowest rainfall since records began in 1904. It has been a century since South Africa’s pastures have been this dry. In Malawi half of all children under five are malnourished and President Peter Mutharika has declared a national disaster.

Despite the drought, South Africa produces more grain than it did two decades ago but harvests are half of what they were two years ago. The last harvest was 9.9 million tons, this year it is expected to be even lower, with just 7.4 million tons available.

Maize, the staple food of the region, is now so expensive it is a luxury. The region has also depleted its stockpile of grain reserves. For landlocked countries such as Zimbabwe and Malawi, food costs will double as a result of transport costs from ports in South Africa and Mozambique.

In villages in Zimbabwe’s Chivi District and the Neno District in Malawi families are resorting to desperate measures to fill their empty stomachs. A story in Britain’s <em>The Guardian</em> newspaper highlighted the plight of Chidyamakondo High School in southern Zimbabwe. For three years the schools girls’ football team have been national champions. Now Morrison Musorowegomo, the school’s head teacher, told the newspaper’s correspondent: “Students are fainting, struggling to concentrate in lessons, dropping out of school… We’re having to shorten our assemblies and cut back on sport.”

Students are also dropping out of school to help families scavenge for food. Even more heart-breaking for Musorowegomo, his students are vulnerable enough to be coerced into exchanging sex for food or cash.

Food is a human rights issue, says Malawi’s deputy director for school health and nutrition, Virginia Kachigunda. “We are really at a point where we need support. This is a situation which will eventually recycle poverty in these families. It’s a serious problem.”

Climate change

Africa faces challenges caused by the changing global climate. The environment of SADC is especially fragile and is being affected by higher land and ocean temperatures. In coming decades these changes will alter the weather and will affect when the rainfall season begins; in turn, this will change the agricultural cycle.

Historically there was one regional drought every decade, then every five years. The cycle has now sped up and SADC countries are affected every three to five years. Mary Robinson, UN special envoy on El Niño and climate, says El Niño affected by climate change is the new normal. She believes that humanitarian disasters will get worse as the climate changes.

Aid workers say that the response should be built on longer term planning. World Vision’s Beatrice Mwangi says this latest drought has shown the need to help affected communities plan for the new reality. Communities need food aid, she adds, but more importantly they need help adapting to the changing climate.

The leaders of SADC countries understand that economic development will be hamstrung by more frequent floods, droughts and cyclones. They understand that climate change will damage agricultural infrastructure and that they need to adapt to preserve the progress the region has made. SADC has signed commitments with the World Food Programme that recognise adapting to climate change is an area of co-operation.

The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (Amcen) has developed a framework for the region to deal with the challenges it could face. The aim, it says in the report, is “to unlock resources for promoting strategic interventions that sustain productivity and livelihood improvements for millions of climate-vulnerable people in the region”.