Southern Africa facing El Niño drought risk

An El Niño weather pattern developing in the Pacific Ocean is likely to bring drought to much of Southern Africa, hitting crop and livestock production and damaging wider economies, a top forecaster said on Thursday.

“Not every El Niño event is associated with a drought, but if you look at the events that you’ve had, it’s much more often than not that we don’t see good rain,” Willem Landman, chief scientist at South Africa’s Weather Service (SAWS), said.

“It’s very risky to expect this season to be a season of adequate rainfall,” he told Reuters, adding that current projections were for insufficient rains to support farming.

“We may have enough soil moisture because of the past two favourable rainfall seasons, but I don’t know what will happen in the mid-summer period,” he said.

The latest long-range forecasts suggest South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and most parts of Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and the southern half of Angola will have below average rainfall in the October to March summer rainy season.

However, East African countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya should experience good rains, in line with previous El Niño years, Landman said.

El Niño, meaning “little boy” in Spanish, is driven by an abnormal warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, and creates havoc in weather patterns across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

A severe one in 1998 killed more than 2 000 people and caused billions of dollars of damage to crops, mines and infrastructure in Asia and Australia but produced only slightly below average rainfall in Southern Africa, Landman said.

However, relatively minor ones in 1991/92 and 2006/07 caused severe rain shortages in Southern Africa, Landman said.

Regional maize production fell by 10-million tonnes in 1991/92 and hit economic growth. By contrast, a run of good harvests have been a factor in the racy expansion many African economies have enjoyed in the last five years.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said this month the current emerging El Niño did not look “weak” but similarly did not appear on course to be as strong as 1997/98.

Any drought would be severely felt in one of the poorest parts of the world, where most people are directly dependent on farming for much of their food. Maize, the region’s staple, is particularly susceptible to water shortage.

Cash crops such as sugar or tobacco could also suffer.

In Malawi, where the economy is forecast to grow more than 7% this year—the second-fastest expansion after Qatar—tobacco is the main foreign exchange earner and accounts for 60% of exports.

Drought would also be likely to hit large scale commercial farming, a growing source of foreign investment as populous or infertile countries in the Middle East and Asia seek to secure long-term access to food.

Even though commercial projects are more likely to have artificial irrigation, many still rely on rain water.

For instance, in South Africa, which enjoys the continent’s most sophisticated agricultural sector, 80% of all farming is rain-fed, Landman estimated.

A severe drought could also crimp regional hydroelectric power production, which in countries such as Zambia and Mozambique accounts for the lion’s share of all output.
- Reuters

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