It is not easy to estimate the total economic cost of the effects of climate change and pest infestation that have devastated millions of hectares of cropland across different African countries. Unfortunately, with no improvement on climate change, conflict, and the economic crisis in sight, their total impact on human livelihoods is likely to remain high and continue to grow for years to come.
The proportion of people experiencing severe food insecurity, poverty and hunger in Africa was on the rise long before the 2007–2008 food and economic crises. Driven by one of the strongest El Niño events of the last 50 years, in the earliest stages of the 2015-2016 agricultural season, the Southern African region experienced an intense drought, leaving 49 million people in the countries of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Madagascar facing severe food deprivation requiring emergency food assistance and livelihood recovery support.
El Niño is the most persistent change in climate resulting in severe episodes of drought in Southern Africa. Extremes in rainfall and floods have exerted the biggest devastation leading to some of the highest poverty rates in the region. The effects of El Niño on this drought-prone region have historically led to reduced agricultural production resulting in soaring staple food prices and the increased risk of food insecurity.
Not only that, Southern Africa’s food production also suffers from the devastating effects of conflicts and pest infestation, resulting in widespread poor harvests and higher prices for basic foodstuffs – with the poorest bearing the brunt of the crises. With all the disasters that seem to be increasing unabated, agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to drop to 9% by 2080 if no change happens soon.
As a region strongly dependent on agriculture, the worsening situation driven by conflict, pest infestation, climate extremes and variability have destroyed food systems, triggering food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger. The state of food security among the different African countries has led to a massive influx of refugees and internally displaced persons. Communities that have experienced severe events like droughts and floods are often left with nothing to survive on, having had to abandon their homes and move to less affected neighbouring communities or urban areas in search of resources to help them cope.
Because of the poor crop performance of the 2019/2020 agricultural season caused by last year’s drought, 43 million people in the Southern African region face serious food and nutrition insecurity challenges that are likely to worsen. The overwhelming disasters threatening millions of peoples’ livelihoods requires action from a range of actors to help vulnerable people and prevent a drastic descent in the state of food security in Southern Africa.
The current situation
Even though most crop sowing in the Southern Africa region is practiced during the rainfall season lasting from October to March, the 2019/20 season was characterized by erratic and poor rainfall. The erratic start of the season saw many parts of the region suffering the lowest seasonal rainfall, long dry spells and high temperatures resulting in persistent drought conditions, which have destroyed some crop sowing areas, and temporarily disrupted livelihoods.
Africa’s low agricultural productivity has been instrumental to an increased reliance on food imports, posing a serious challenge to the state of food security. Southern African countries have experienced food insecurity in different ways over the years, and as a result have responded differently to it, with some countries reporting people selling their livestock and farming tools as a desperate measure to survive.
Looking at the situation at the country level, erratic rains, dry spells, waterlogging, false and late starts to the 2019/2020 rainy season were the main causes of reduced crop production, contributing to the acute food insecurity conditions across different countries. In Namibia, Botswana and South Africa millions of people face acute food insecurity due to poor rainfall in the previous planting season, which led to a significant decline in cereal production and below-average crop-sown areas.
The invasion by armyworms of thousands of hectares of maize in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia just as they were trying to recover from the El Niño-induced drought is estimated to have caused crop loss of up to 70% of irreversible damage.
Mozambique and Madagascar continue to experience all forms of natural disasters such as pestinfestations, droughts, floods and cyclones, which have disrupted the food production of the most vulnerable people.
The region has seen a fair share of spikes in prices of staple cereal foods, with projections for 2020 as being 20-30% higher than in 2010. Not a good sign for the already struggling farmers and food-insecure communities.
Moreover, with lockdown regulations implemented in response to the coronavirus adding to the hardship and driving the price of staples even higher, many countries in the region face a future of acute food insecurity and food crisis – a combination of pandemic, conflict, economic crisis, and weather-related factors.