For Millions of People El Niño Brings Drought Instead of Rain

The dry weather in sub-Saharan Africa is drastically reducing harvests and raising staple-crop prices.

Cattle farmer Owen Geekie stands next to dead livestock and what used to be his 200,000-cubic-meter dam in Ladysmith, South Africa. (Photo: Jackie Clausen/Getty Images)

Jan 19, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Rain is in the forecast for Los Angeles today, with some of the wet weather that’s been hitting northern parts of the state likely to arrive Tuesday evening. While L.A.’s rainfall totals are still below normal, despite a heavy storm hitting just after the New Year, El Niño is beginning to deliver much needed water—in the forms of rain and, more importantly, mountain snowfall—to parched California. In the coming weeks, as much as 15 inches of rain could fall in far-northern California, perhaps triggering the kind of damaging flooding associated with past El Niño weather systems.

Even as rivers approach flood stage, the drought in California is by no means over. And while the California drought has come to be thought of as the Drought in the United States over the past four years, the arrival of El Niño, and its global consequences, are a stark reminder of how myopic that outlook is. While reservoirs are slowly filling back up on the West Coast, fields in sub-Saharan Africa are drying out—and the World Food Programme is warning that the region’s drought, also triggered by warm waters in the Pacific, is putting 14 million people at risk of hunger.

Not only was last year’s harvest low for lack of rain, but the persistent dry spell has also lasted through this year’s planting season for staple cereal crops, such as corn, which is a key staple in the region. According to the WFP, Malawi, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe, where yields were down by 50 percent last year, were worst hit by last year’s lack of rain. Now, with the dry weather persisting into the new growing season, South Africa—the region’s breadbasket—is facing the worst drought conditions in 50 years.

While some larger South African farmers (who are also white) are faring well enough, the smallholder farmers who together provide 80 percent of the region’s food supply are facing another year of potentially catastrophic crop losses. According to the African Smallholder Farmers Group, two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa resides in rural areas, and the majority of those people can be considered smallholder farmers—and they have few resources to fall back on when farming conditions take a turn for the worse.

After a recent visit to the region, Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the WFP, said in a release, “I’m particularly concerned that smallholders won’t be able to harvest enough crops to feed their own families through the year, let alone to sell what little they can in order to cover school fees and other household needs.” The U.N.’s food aid program is increasing both food and cash assistance for people living in drought-stricken areas.

While 14 million people are at the risk of hunger, there are 49 million living in areas of sub-Saharan Africa who are “highly exposed to the fall-out from El Niño.” In Malawi, for example, corn is already selling for 73 percent more than the three-year average price for this time of year.