Drought stings Southern Africa: The region’s leadership must act now as millions face food crisis

Dyna is a farmer in Malawi. She is afraid for her future. And she is certainly not alone, according to the stories that Oxfam is hearing daily across southern Africa. She says: “From the looks of things this year, I am scared. I have never witnessed such a poor rainfall pattern since I was born. There have been times in the past when the rains would be problematic, but this year’s dry spell is beyond our comprehension.”

Dyna relies solely on nature’s rainfall to grow her crops and feed her family. But this year her crops are failing. She is losing hope that she will be able to harvest anything at all because she lives in one of the parts of Malawi that is suffering an extended drought and in some areas- severe flooding had a severe impact on the 2014-2015 harvests in Southern Africa. El Nino, an ocean-warming phenomenon that triggers erratic and extreme global weather patterns, has compounded this year. This El Nino, super charged by climate change, is one of the strongest since records began. It is playing havoc with farmers around the world, with 60 million people now affected by crop failures and facing hunger. Southern Africa has been hit particularly hard.

Crop failures in southern Africa mean that maize prices are already high and still climbing. 28 million people in the region were already “food insecure” as of late 2015. If the next harvests are poor or fail – and is very likely to be the case – and no action is taken, this number will certainly rise significantly because people will quickly exhaust the ways they would ordinarily cope.

Around 28 million people in Southern Africa now face alarming levels of hunger and food insecurity. If no action is taken this could rise quickly to 49 million. Crops have failed after two consecutive bad harvests, driven this year by a “super” El Nino bringing with it erratic weather and less rainfall.

This week, the Southern African Development Committee (SADC) host a ministerial meeting in Gaborone, Botswana. You may not have heard about this meeting – but it is a crucial one. To tackle this crisis and help the millions of people who need it, regional cooperation is going to be vital. Many SADC Ministers have already acknowledged the scale of the crisis in their own countries and are responding to their people’s needs. These different responses now need to be joined up. SADC can send a strong signal to outside donors more quickly and strongly than they otherwise might.

SADC’s declaration of a regional emergency must be a clarion call for donors, national governments and the humanitarian community to act faster. A lot of work is already happening to ensure affected people, especially women and children, can access enough food over the coming weeks and months. But more still must happen as this crisis threatens to overwhelm both governments’ ability to respond and people’s ability to cope.”

Last month SADC convened meeting where it outlined a plan, including increasing the supply of cereals and improving coordination to ensure that food is moved more easily around the region. It also spoke about longer-term action to build people’s resilience against future droughts and other climate events. This was all helpful. SADC can now build upon this base.

SADC must use this moment to signal donors to bring forward resources and boost national funding allocations immediately. SADC’s leadership could help introduce the flexibility and speed needed to tackle the new realities that people across the region are facing. The longer governments and international aid agencies wait, the more people will suffer, the costlier the response, and the worse it will hit the region’s development

In Southern Africa, Oxfam is responding to these serious food crises in Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and are planning to increase our support. In Malawi and Zimbabwe, we are supporting rural livelihoods, including by repairing and rehabilitating boreholes and irrigation programs, supporting water harvesting structures, and supporting climate smart agriculture promotion, including drought tolerant small grains. This is expected to reach more than 60,000 people in southern Zimbabwe alone. In Malawi, we are transferring cash to people from around 39,000 households, so they can access food in local markets, which stabilizes the local economy while also acting as a ‘safety net’. In Mozambique we are working in Gaza and Inhambane - two of the most drought stricken areas - helping around 35,000 households to get better access to clean water and providing vouchers for agricultural inputs.

Civil society and aid organizations will benefit from a strong message by SADC governments of urgency and a commitment to collectively respond to the crisis. This will help to sustain an environment of coordination, strong partnerships and short; medium and long term investments that will benefit the people affected the most.  To help Dyna and millions of others, the time to act is now.

Interactive map: See how Oxfam is responding to climate change and El Niño around the world.

This entry was posted by Daniel Sinnathamby, Oxfam's Regional Humanitarian Coordinator in Southern Africa, on 15 March 2016.

Photo: Farming in Zimbabwe. Credit: Oxfam

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