The worst drought in decades and record high temperatures have pushed more than 36 million people across southern and eastern Africa into hunger, as countries from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe cope with one of the most powerful El Niño events in history.
“The drought caught many officials by surprise, because although El Niño was forecast, the weather event normally brings more rain to the region, not less,” The Guardian reports. Now, “there are fears that the long-term impacts of climate change are also undermining the region’s ability to endure extremes in weather, leaving huge numbers of people vulnerable to hunger and disease.”
In Ethiopia, where drought could affect 80% of this year’s crops, UNICEF is preparing to treat more than two million children for malnutrition, and expects that more than 10 million people will need food aid. “Ethiopia has been hit by a double blow, both from a change to the rainy seasons that has been linked to long-term climate change and now from El Niño, which has potentially led the country to one of the worst droughts in decades,” said the agency’s country representative, Gillian Mellsop.
In southern Africa, families that normally eat two meals per day are cutting back to one, and one-third of households are now going hungry, said UNICEF Zimbabwe Chief of Communication Victor Chinyama. “We are seeing this as a regional crisis, a cross-country humanitarian crisis,” he told The Guardian. “In each country maybe the numbers [of hungry people] are nowhere near as much as Ethiopia, but if you put these numbers together as a whole region, you get a sense of how large a crisis this is.”
Over the rest of the century, meanwhile, climate change could wipe out 60% of bean production in sub-Saharan Africa while damaging banana and maize crops, according to a paper last week in the journal Nature Climate Change. The paper urged decision-makers “to step up efforts to adapt local farming and limit the effects of higher temperatures and rainfall on food production,” SciDevNet reports.
“Beans are a very important source of protein in East Africa and are very sensitive to rises in temperature,” said co-author Julian Ramirez-Villegas of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).