Southern Africa plans ahead for drought as report warns of possible El Niño effect

Countries in southern Africa are urging farmers to plant early and prepare for drought conditions that many experts are predicting the subregion may suffer as a result of El Niño. "The worst effects of this year's El Niño are expected to be felt over the next few months", according to a Special Report on the event's impact on crop production in the subregion released by FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) in late November.
This year's El Niño phenomenon - a warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru often associated with extreme weather patterns - is widely considered to be among the most severe this century.

Drought conditions are forecast for most southern African countries, including Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. To reduce possible adverse effects, governments in the subregion are encouraging farmers to plant drought-resistant crops as early as possible and to adopt better water conservation methods. Other contingency plans include the distribution of seed packs and inputs and conservation of food stocks. The most recent GIEWS report on the Food Supply Situation and Crop Prospects in sub-Saharan Africa warns that reports of impending drought might prompt some farmers to keep more grain for family consumption forcing countries to import more cereals from outside.

Many in southern Africa remember the effects of the 1991/92 El Niño, which resulted in a devastating drought that threatened some 18 million people with famine. However, credible early warning, on-the-spot assessments, rapid regional response and large-scale international assistance were credited with saving many lives.

FAO/GIEWS has been closely monitoring weather and crop events in southern Africa using satellite imagery, together with country-level field observations, in order to head off any possible El Niño-induced catastrophe in a region that has already suffered from adverse weather in recent months. Malawi has been hit by both drought and flood, and hundreds of thousands of people in southern parts of Madagascar are now receiving food assistance after a devastating combination of locust plagues and poor rainfall sharply reduced crops this year.

The critical period for possible impact of El Niño on the next crop season will start in January 1998, at the onset of pollination, according to the report, which follows two earlier reports on the effects of El Niño and other weather anomalies in Latin America and Asia. FAO/GIEWS will continue to monitor events closely and issue reports, as appropriate, updating information on the situation.

El Niño: the phenomenon
El Niño (Spanish for Christ Child) is the name given by Peruvian fisherfolk to the warming of the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean that tends to occur around Christmas. A natural event that recurs in more or less regular cycles (on average every four to five years), El Niño affects the Pacific from Peru to Indonesia. The local warming of the world's largest ocean also has repercussions for global atmospheric circulation of winds and waters.

Although some of its effects may be beneficial, the phenomenon is better known for the havoc it can wreak: harvests can be lost, fishery yields reduced and oceanic ecosystems endangered, threatening food security in many regions. The disturbance can produce droughts in southern Africa, parts of India, Indonesia, Australia and certain regions of the Americas, floods in Kenya, Argentina and the United States, erratic monsoons in South Asia and extremely high temperatures in Japan and some regions of Canada.

Although the warming of the waters may last from 12 months to five years, a time lag between the phenomenon itself and many of its most important climatic consequences means that repercussions are long term. The intense El Niño of 1982/83 brought devastation to more than 15 countries.

A growing number of experts have criticized press coverage and interpretation of scientific predictions about the current El Niño as scaremongering. FAO agrometeorologist Rene Gommes said, "It is important not to minimize risks but also to remember that there have been El Niños without any catastrophes and catastrophes without any El Niños". Back to article

28 November 1997

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