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El Niño. A new threat to Africa

Terrorism and internal conflicts are not the only threats to the stability of Africa. Some regions in the eastern and southern part of the continent have also to face the devastating impact of El Niño.

This weather phenomenon occurs irregularly in the eastern tropical Pacific and off Ecuador and Perù’s coasts, every three to seven years. When the trade winds that usually blow from east to west weaken, or even reverse direction, sea surface temperatures start rising, setting off a chain of atmospheric impacts that involve several areas of the world.
El Niño events can be strong or weak.

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Strong events can temporarily disrupt weather patterns around the world, typically making certain regions wetter (Peru or California, say) and others drier (Southeast Asia). Some countries suffer major damage as a result. After a five-years absence this weather phenomenon came back again in March 2015. ‘El Niño’ got its name in the 1800s from Peruvian fisherman, who first noticed a mysterious warm current that would appear around Christmas.

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They called it the ‘little boy’ or ‘Christ child’. El Niño impacts the eastern and southern African regions in different ways: it may cause drought, or may bring devastating flooding which destroys crops and washes houses away. In both cases, however, the result is the same, millions of people’s survival is put at risk. Europe is not directly affected by El Niño, which however has impact on the global climate and  whose consequences contribute to the rise in the price of agricultural products such as rice, cereals, coffee, etc.

Repeated alarms

For months international organizations active in the field of food safety, in particular those linked to the UN, such as the World Food Program (WFP), and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), have warned of the impact of El Niño on crop and livestock production prospects in Southern Africa.

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New figures from the UN’s World Food Programme say  40 million people in rural areas and 9 million in urban centreswho live in the drought-affected parts of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi and Swaziland will need food assistance in the next year. In addition, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) say that 10 million people need food in Ethiopia.

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The 2015-2016 El Niño weather phenomenon, was one of the strongest in the past 50 years. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), El Niño conditions have caused the lowest recorded rainfall between October 2015 and January 2016 across many regions of southern Africa in at least 35 years. El Niño’s impact on rain-fed agriculture is severe. Poor-rainfall, combined with excessive temperatures, has created conditions that are unfavourable for crop growth in many areas of southern Africa with the consequent increase in the price of basic foodstuffs.  In February 2016, the cost of maize, the regional staple in Malawi was 73% higher than average. On 17 April the government of that country was forced to declare a  ‘State of Emergency’ due to food shortages: the projected drop in maize harvest is estimated at 12% from last’s year output and 33% lower than the average of the last five years. In February, in Mozambique the average price of food products was 50% higher than that of 2015.

No one is spared

El Niño hit, in several cases, countries like Somalia, which were already in difficulties for a number of reasons such as internal conflicts or long-term political crisis. On 26 April, a group of non-governmental organizations declared Somalia at risk from famine. But even countries, which seemed to be more solid, were hit by the consequences of El Niño such as Ethiopia and South Africa. In Ethiopia, crop production  dropped by 50–90% in some areas, between November 2015  and January 2016, and failed completely in others.

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El Niño challenges could last for up to two years, and therefore, besides crop failures and livestock losses, Africa will also have to face the depletion of food supplies.
Experts do not predict a rosy future. According to Nick Nuttall, press officer of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC), emergencies of this kind will be frequent in the future due to the gradual increase in the global temperature, a phenomenon more evident in Africa than in other areas of the world.

Andrea Carbonari

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