5 Things You Should Know About El Niño’s Impact on Southern Africa’s Food Security

Southern Africa is currently in the grip of an intense drought that has expanded and strengthened since the earliest stages of the 2015-2016 agricultural season, driven by one of the strongest El Niño events of the last 50 years.

 The combination of a poor 2014-2015 season (characterized by hot, dry conditions and a 23% drop in regional cereal production), an extremely dry early season (October to December) and forecasts for continuing hot and drier-than-average conditions through mid-2016, suggest a scenario of extensive, regional-scale crop failure.

Here are 5 important facts about how the effects of El Niño are going to impact Southern Africa’s harvests and food security:

1. Across Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, and Madagascar, the current rainfall season so far has been the driest in the last 35 years. 


2. In many areas, planting has not been possible due to 30 – 50 day delays in the onset of seasonal rains resulting in widespread crop failure.

3. The window of opportunity for the successful planting of crops under rain-fed conditions is nearly closed. Even assuming normal rainfall for the remainder of the season, cropwater balance models indicate poor performance of maize over a widespread area.


4. Even before the current crisis began, the number of food-insecure people in the region (not including South Africa), already stood at 14 million (1), with at least 2.5 million people of this total being in Crisis and requiring urgent humanitarian assistance.


5. Drought emergencies have been declared; water authorities are limiting water usage; and power outages have been occurring as water levels have become much lower than usual.

What can be done? In the short term, the following actions are required:

  • Continued close monitoring of the season to inform decision-making on programming and targeting;
  • Immediate additional assistance to help currently food-insecure households;
  • Updating of contingency plans, intensification of advocacy and resource mobilization to address the impact of an extended post-2016 harvest lean season;
  • Increased awareness-raising of the need for a regional approach to address the effects of drought that are becoming more frequent and intense;
  • Over the coming year, humanitarian partners should prepare themselves for food insecurity levels and food insecure population numbers in southern Africa to be at their highest levels since the 2002-2003 food crisis.

This statement reflects a shared view of current conditions and the likely evolution of the situation in southern Africa by major actors involved in global food security monitoring and early warning. Further details can be obtained from the following reports:

(1) See page 5 of this WFP report for official SADC numbers at the start of the season. Not including South Africa, the 14 million includes 7.6 million in currently drought affected countries, plus 6.6 million in DRC (where conflict, not drought is the driver of food insecurity) and 0.4 million in Tanzania, which is not drought-affected during El Niño. South Africa is excluded as its figures are not directly comparable.

Originally Published: FAO.org | 12 February 2016