August 2016

El Nino happens every 3-7 years. How can Africa be better prepared?


A farmer in The Gambia shows a dry tuft of rice in a drought period. Photo: FAOA farmer in The Gambia shows a dry tuft of rice in a drought period. Photo: FAO

Some 60 million people’s lives have been affected by the 2015/16 El Niño phenomenon in the Horn and Southern Africa, the strongest since 1950.

Severe drought conditions have led to crop production failure and food insecurity, massive livestock and wildlife deaths, and loss of livelihoods.

Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have all declared drought emergencies. In South Africa, only one province –the seat of government Gauteng- has been spared the emergency.   

A total of 40 million people or 22 percent of Southern Africa’s rural population became food insecure with 23 million of these requiring immediate humanitarian assistance at a cost of US$2.7 billion.

In the Horn of Africa, close to 24 million people are facing critical and emergency food insecurity levels as of June 2016. Ethiopia has been the most severely impacted by the drought with about 10.2 million people in need of food assistance and emergency funding requirements of US$1.4 billion.

The 2015/16 El Nino was predicted and early warning data made available in most countries, yet little action was taken, exposing both a lack of political will and a resilience deficit.  Only half of the affected countries have updated disaster risk reduction contingency plans, while the rest have outdated plans or none at all, and many do not have resilience strategies.

El-Nino is a climatic natural phenomenon that occurs every five to seven years, and while we cannot control it, we can prevent the damage to lives and livelihoods by considering the following seven-point agenda for longer-term resilience and securing sustainable development:

  • Addressing chronic food insecurity by addressing hunger and nurturing food security and resilience. Investments are needed in four drivers of change - greater agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers; more effective nutrition policies, especially for children; greater community and household resilience to cope with shocks; and wider popular participation and empowerment, especially of women and the rural poor.
  • Early warning systems, especially locally understandable information on early warning/early action and preparedness aimed at protecting lives and livelihoods and minimizing potential impacts of disasters when they occur.
  • Decentralised resilience building and early recovery through strengthening local government and institutionalising resilience, particularly in mapping of hazards and risks, vulnerability, preparedness and response. Focusing on building back better, for instance, through exploring alternative and more resilient livelihoods.
  • Flexible and multi-year funding for programmes that combine development and emergency relief and preparedness initiatives, and address underlying causes of vulnerability before the onset of El Niño / La Niña and other shocks. The funding should be grounded in risk management rather than risk aversion and on the use of crisis modifiers, such as resilience building funds.
  • Partnerships with private sector committed to disaster risk reduction can steer public demand towards materials, systems and technological solutions to build and run resilient communities. Innovative solutions such as risk transfer and micro-insurance have proven effective in other continents in helping households recover more quickly from disaster events. More investment is needed in agricultural research and innovation, extension services and climate information provision. This should be supported by strong value chains, market infrastructure and linkages to market access for the region to wean itself off over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture.
  • Align social protection services such as labour market programmes and cash transfer schemes with resilience objectives to more effectively help vulnerable households adapt to climate change, prepare for disasters, and restore livelihoods quickly.
  • Simple affordable solutions such as deep well construction and rain water harvesting for small scale irrigation and livestock watering and application of climate-smart technologies such as drought-tolerant crops and varieties could also serve as buffers to shocks.

Finally, crosscutting areas that must be integrated into this agenda include women’s empowerment and partnerships among different response actors. Without the above investments, we cannot break the cycle and risk further loss of life and economic progress. 

Blog post Africa Disaster risk management Climate change Disaster risk reduction Damage and loss Early warning Sustainable development

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