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FAO launches a new El Niño Response Plan for Southern Africa

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Framing the FAO El Niño Response Plan

Situation and impact

Southern Africa has been struggling with an intense drought that has expanded and strengthened since the earliest stages of the 2015/16 agricultural season, driven by one of the strongest El Niño events of the last 50 years. The effects on food security and livelihoods have been exacerbated by sluggish economic performance in some countries and the depreciation of national currencies set against a background of chronic vulnerabilities.

Across many parts of Botswana, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the 2015/16 rainfall season (November–April) has been the driest in the last 35 years. Agricultural areas in northern Namibia and southern Angola have also experienced high levels of water deficit. The poor performance of the main rainfall season has grievous implications on households as well as national economies in the region, with particular bearing on food security and medium- to long-term nutrition.

Following poor harvests from the 2014/15 season, more than 30 million people in the region were food insecure by early 2016. The poor 2015/16 season has led to a further deterioration in regional food security. Preliminary results of the Regional Vulnerability Assessment and Analysis in June 2016 indicate that 39.7 million people will be acutely food insecure in the SADC region at the peak of the lean season in January to March 2017. This number will likely change as assessments are ongoing in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Mozambique and the United Republic of Tanzania.

While the El Niño phenomenon is now declining, its impact continues to be felt and is even expected to increase across Southern Africa. Its impact on food security and agricultural production in the region has been particularly severe and the effects of the drought and resulting food insecurity will likely peak during the lean season between October 2016 and March 2017.

Severely reduced seasonal rains and higher-than-normal temperatures linked to El Niño caused an anticipated 12 percent drop in aggregate cereal production compared with the already reduced 2015 output. Drought emergencies were declared in Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. In addition, eight out of nine provinces in South Africa, which account for almost 90 percent of the country’s maize production, were declared drought disaster areas. At the same time, other parts of the region experienced floods, including Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. In addition, cyclones are forecast for Madagascar and Mozambique. The impact on the immediate- and long-term food and nutrition security in the subregion has been enormous.

Loss of agricultural production, income and assets

With at least 70 percent of the population relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, the effects of El Niño are having a direct impact through loss of income from crop and livestock value chains, as well as income-generating opportunities for vulnerable people that provide labour for the sector.

The poor rainfall performance led to delayed planting, poor germination and widespread crop failure in the worst-affected areas, resulting in low production and household food availability. As a direct consequence, the lean season and the food gap has increased.

Livestock production has also been considerably affected by lack of pasture and water. Significant livestock deaths have been recorded in Lesotho, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Furthermore, outbreaks of diseases such as anthrax have been reported in Zimbabwe and Lesotho; and incidences of transboundary diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease have been reported in northern Namibia and southern Angola as a result of increased movement of livestock in search of pasture and water.

Water rationing measures have been implemented by authorities in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland because of low water levels in reservoirs. Power outages have also occurred in Zambia and Zimbabwe as water levels in Kariba Dam (the main source of hydro-electric power for the two countries) are so low as to adversely affect electricity generation. Consequently, irrigated agricultural production has been severely affected in various countries; notably in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Reduced access to nutritious food by households especially the vulnerable

The 2014/15 cropping season was poor, therefore households had lower reserves and had to rely more on markets to access food. The markets have been equally affected with high prices due to increased importation of food, following the deficits at local and national level. By June 2016, prices of maize (the main staple) in surplus producing areas were significantly above international prices, with prices in Malawi and Mozambique doubling in comparison with the previous season – and this at harvest time. Access to food by household is further constrained by low purchasing power as a result of the devaluation of some currencies, notably the South African rand and the Zambian kwacha against major currencies. The situation is further exacerbated by the loss of national revenues in the region, due to the fall in global commodity prices of their main exports including minerals and oil. The El Niño-induced food insecurity is therefore expected to worsen chronic nutrition vulnerability that is already affecting the region. Children, pregnant and lactating women, people living with HIV and tuberculosis, as well as the elderly are most at risk.

Given that food security among Southern African countries is highly interlinked, as countries import maize from each other to offset any shortfalls in their domestic production, there is an increased need for coordinated and collective response actions to strengthen food security, reduce malnutrition and exposure of vulnerable populations at risk in the short, medium and long term. These actions can help to combat the risks and consequences of negative coping strategies that expose vulnerable households to increased HIV/AIDS infections; as well as limit migration within and outside the region.