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El Niño's belly blow to Africa

Apr 18 2016 09:39
Mandi Smallhorne

REMEMBER all those articles about Ethiopia’s impressive growth rate of over 10% over the last decade? “Ethiopia is indeed aiming to become a middle-income country by 2025 and is on track to achieve this. It has already met or is coming close to meeting all Millennium Development Goals, including universal primary education and reductions in infant and maternal mortality. The poverty rate has fallen significantly over the last decade to under 26% in 2013. Unemployment is falling and inflation is down.”

And our near neighbour: “Zambia’s economy performed relatively well within the region despite the decline in the growth rate. This decline was largely a result of lower production in the mining sector compared to the year before as well as slower growth in manufacturing and public services.

"Agriculture, on the other hand, put in a strong performance growing at over 6% as a result of a bumper maize harvest. Economic performance is expected to remain strong in the medium term driven by large investments in infrastructure and a growing public administration and defence.”

Now, not so much: “Projections for growth in Zambia, which averaged more than 7 percent for the decade up to 2015, have been cut in half.”

Why? In Zambia, almost all energy is hydropowered, mostly by water from Kariba Dam, which is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. And the production of electricity has dropped to about a quarter of the norm, as the dam has sunk to 12% of its capacity, thanks to the very poor rains.

It was at about 50% of capacity this time last year, thanks to a drought season from 2014/15, and that was bad enough, reducing energy provision by around a quarter, but this is devastating for the country. Blackouts are crippling business large and small, and have played a part in the layoffs experienced in the copper industry.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia the rains crucial to about four-fifths of the country’s crops have failed. About 80% of Ethiopian employment is in agriculture, which makes up close on half of the country’s GDP. “Poor spring rains have made Ethiopia's worst drought in 50 years even more severe, and the government estimates the number of districts suffering a humanitarian emergency has risen by nearly one-fifth in three months.

“The new figures will feed into the current revision by the government and aid agencies of a joint appeal in December for $1.4 billion for more than 10 million people, some of them herders whose cattle are lying dead on the dry, dusty ground.”

Go to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) and you’ll see that areas of greatest concern globally are Ethiopia and South Sudan, with southern Africa, Nigeria and Chad among the second tier of concern. And Malawi has just declared a state of emergency.

The United Nations has warned that over 36 million people across Africa face hunger, 16 million of them in southern Africa – and that’s just the most scary impact. As you read of businesses laying off people due to blackouts in Zambia and children who can’t go to school in Ethiopia thanks to the drought, you begin to grasp the scale of the economic and human impact this El Niño has had on the continent, and how long the ripple effects will take to smooth out.

But it’s not just the angriest El Niño ever recorded; a highly respected climate scientist told me that about half the intensity of this El Niño needs to be laid at the door of climate change.

The signs were already there. In 2011, at COP17, I spoke to African farmers who came to tell the world their experiences of climate change: the long gaps between rains, the pounding storms that eventually came and scoured seedlings out of the ground, the change in temperatures that meant switching crops.

A couple of years later, I wrote about a scientist at the CSIR who was looking at similar impacts on farmers in Limpopo; in 2014, I covered a conference of African women farmers, and noted how many of them spoke independently about the impacts they were feeling – one group, from Madagascar, had to switch from farming rice to livestock, which requires a whole ‘nother skill set.

While major stakeholders in agriculture get used to the ‘new normal’ – instead of a drought every ten years or so, we have to anticipate one every three or four years, and how do we farm under those conditions? – the politicos might want to consider what such dire ‘food insecurity’ (read: starvation, famine) will mean to political regimes and life on the continent.

Food prices played an important role in triggering the Arab Spring, remember. And hunger spurs people to move, too – it was the potato famine that sent so many Reagans and Kennedys to the USA (about 10% of the population has some Irish ancestry). You think the current wave of immigrants crossing the Med is bad? Wait till half a continent gets restless! And they won’t all be headed for Europe: huge numbers will be moving to where the grass seems greener (South Africa, perhaps?).

This coming year is, I suspect, going to be ‘interesting’, in the Chinese sense. Best we stop with the internal political nonsense and up our game to be ready for a neighbourhood in crisis.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion  |  africa economy  |  drought
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