El Niño in Southern Africa

During the last rainy season (October 2015 to March 2016), Southern Africa experienced an El Niño-induced drought that crippled rain-fed agricultural production, which accounts for the livelihoods of most Southern Africans. The subsequent April 2016 harvest proved meagre, with a regional maize production shortfall of 9.3 million tons. This was the second consecutive poor rainfall season in the region, deepening vulnerabilities that are also exacerbated by a major economic downturn. The International Monetary Fund recently cut its 2016 growth forecast for South Africa, the region’s economic ballast, to just 0.1 per cent.
[Read: Overview of El Niño response in East and Southern Africa, 1 December 2016]

Over half a million children are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition in seven priority countries in Southern Africa, while 3.2 million children have reduced access to safe drinking water as a direct result of the El Niño-induced drought. The drought has caused an increase in disease outbreaks as people are forced to drink from unprotected water sources; and a decline in medical care as clinics and hospitals run dry. Children and caregivers living with HIV and TB are at particular risk.

The 2015/2016 Southern Africa Drought
February 2016, just weeks from the main maize harvest. Map by Dan Pisut and Climate.gov, based on NOAA AVHRR satellite data from the STAR programme NESDIS
February 2016, just weeks from the main maize harvest. Map by Dan Pisut and Climate.gov, based on NOAA AVHRR satellite data from the STAR programme NESDIS.

The El Niño emergency poses specific and significant threats to the protection of children, including increased migration and unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) of 5 to 14 year olds; exposure and risks to violence against children; increased child labour and school drop outs. Children are forced to work for survival, denying them an education: and increased acute malnutrition rates mean that more children will have to live with cognitive impairment, with long- term national development consequences. Rapid assessments that were conducted in the region recommend that international and regional actors should cooperate with governments to ensure the safety and protection of children on the move, expand social safety nets and include targeted feeding programmes to facilitate the inclusion of children attending school. With an increased likelihood of further population movement, there is a need for enhanced monitoring of child migration and related risks, including unlawful arrest or illegal detention.

Countries are still assessing the impact of the drought on the education system as data is usually collected once a year through national education management information systems (EMIS). The 2016 drought has affected 42 per cent of primary schools in Malawi, forcing over 137,000 children to drop out of school; while in Swaziland, 78 per cent primary and secondary schools (661 schools) have been affected by the drought.

The impact of El Niño on food security and agricultural livelihoods will continue to be felt until the next harvest in April 2017. The effects on the sectors of health, nutrition, protection, education and water and sanitation are likely to continue to grow throughout the year. Many of the areas most affected are those with the highest burden of HIV, which has reduced the ability of individuals and communities to withstand the impact of this emergency and collectively work towards building resilience at local and national levels. According to preliminary findings presented at a stakeholders workshop, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that there are significant gaps in seed availability in the formal marker regionally, especially in Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique. These gaps must be urgently addressed if we are to avoid a third season of poor harvests, deepening vulnerability and attenuating resilience.

The governments of Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have declared national emergencies, as have most provinces in South Africa, while Mozambique activated a Red Alert to mobilize resources and speed up the response, and Madagascar has called for international assistance. All priority countries, with the exclusion of Angola, have put some form of national response plan in place.

On 26 July 2016, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) declared a regional drought emergency and launched a regional humanitarian appeal. To support coordination of the drought response and facilitate the delivery of assistance, SADC established an El Niño Logistics and Coordination Team, to which some United Nations agencies have seconded staff.

The UN and NGOs developed, through the Regional Inter-Agency Standing Committee (RIASCO), an Action Plan to support the efforts of SADC and its Member States. The plan prioritizes the provision of assistance to an estimated 12.3 million people in 7 countries: Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. The Action Plan is composed of three pillars or sections: the humanitarian response, building resilience in the region, and macro-economic risk management options; all three are reported on in this update.

In the 7 priority countries noted above, UNICEF has reached the following numbers of affected people with WASH responses:

  • 52,000 children with severe acute malnutrition treatment;
  • 206,000 people with life-saving health curative interventions;
  • 608,000 people with clean water and WASH support;
  • 74,000 children with protection and psycho-social services; and
  • 100,000 people with HIV education and services.

WFP is scaling up its response as we enter the lean season, as can be seen in the graph below.

Source: WFP. Notes: beneficiaries reached are estimates and may be subject to change as all distribution reports are received and reconciled. Operational plans represent realistic monthly targets (relative to project plans), acknowledging funding status, availability of food/cash in any given month, supply-chain challenges, availability of partners etc. and will change regularly as these parameters move. Project plans are also best projections and may be adjusted according to needs/other factors going forward. Numbers based on data available.

While plans are in place to reach those targeted, funding for food assistance during the first quarter of 2017 – the height of the lean season – is urgently required. There is also a need to ensure the pipeline for non-cereal food assistance that can address nutritional needs.

Data from the next round of national vulnerability assessments are expected in November 2016, which will inform the ongoing response. Looking further ahead, we are almost at the start of the new rainfall season, which runs from October to March. According to the recently held Twentieth Annual Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SARCOF-20), normal to above-normal rainfall is expected over most drought-affected areas this season. It is recommended that in parallel to the drought response, contingency planning for floods should also be undertaken. The coming rainfall season will bring an improvement in water availability by November. However, as cholera is endemic in many Southern African countries, contingency plans should also take into account potential cholera outbreaks that could result from increased rainfall and flood events. Improvement in the food and nutrition situation can only be hoped for after the main maize harvest in April 2017.

Southern Africa Regional Seasonal Outlook

Source: SARCOF-20

The first Africa Drought Conference was held in Namibia in August 2016. The conference adopted the Windhoek Declaration for Enhancing Resilience to Drought in Africa; and committed to implement the Strategic Framework for Drought Risk Management and Enhancing Resilience in Africa, which proposes a Drought Resilient and Prepared Africa. The declaration also requests the African Union Commission (with support from the Government of Namibia) to ensure that the Strategic Framework for Drought Management and Enhancing Resilience in Africa be adopted by its relevant bodies and endorsed at the next African Union Summit. The declaration also committed to establishing:

  • A core team in Africa, under the leadership of an appropriate organ of the AU Commission, to operationalize the Strategy and the pronouncements contained in this declaration;
  • A continent-wide African network with national institutions for Drought Monitoring and Early Warning Systems, and strengthen existing regional, sub-regional, and national EWSs in Africa, with a view to facilitate timely drought information, vulnerability and impact assessment, and mitigation measures at the country, regional and continental levels that are independent of political, social and economic obstacles and conflicts.

The London Conference of 14 July and the High-Level Political Forum Side Event on El Niño and Climate of 19 July aimed at bringing attention to neglected crisis in Southern Africa. These events rallied donors around RIASCO Action Plan and emphasized the importance of multi-sectoral approach.

United Nations Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate, Mary Robinson, was in Swaziland from 29 to 31 August to address a SADC Summit and visit drought affected communities, during which she underlined the scale of the drought situation in the region. The recent visits of WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin to Malawi and OCHA Assistant Secretary-General Kyung-wha Kang to Malawi and Madagascar also helped focus attention on the drought situation in these countries and more broadly in Southern Africa. Some key messages from these missions include:

  • There is a need to diversify the region’s staple food production beyond maize to more drought-resistant crops/ varieties;
  • There is a strong economic rationale for investments in climate resilience and early action;
  • Domestic resources should be mobilized in order to stimulate further support from international community; and
  • Special Envoys are to prepare blueprint for action that could build on existing initiatives and help guide efforts to build resilience, catalyze early action and prevent future drought episodes from becoming humanitarian disasters.

At the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly, a High Level Event on Responding to the Impacts of El Niño and Mitigating Recurring Risks was co-organized by OCHA, the European Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In concluding remarks, Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate Ambassador Macharia Kamau, thanked panelists and the audience for their engagement in the event and reinforced the commitments of both Special Envoys in raising awareness to a crisis that does not receive media attention as well as in mobilizing political efforts to find short and long term solutions for affected people. Ambassador Kamau noted that some improvements were made, concluding however that joint efforts are still needed to build resilience, which could only be done by breaking down silos between North and South countries, development and humanitarian actors, public and private sectors. Ambassador Kamau noted the particular challenges in responding to slow onset disasters and the phenomenon of ‘compassion fatigue’ that needed to be overcome. He concluded that we have the experience, we have examples of good practice, we have adequate data and analysis, what remains is to use these resources to make strides together.

Ambassador Kamau is expected to visit the region later in October 2016.


Funding Status by Sector, as at 31 August 2016*

*Sector reporting based on data received, and differs from sectors laid out in RIASCO Action Plan. Source: Respective UNRCOs, as at 31 August 2016. Data partial and incomplete.

An estimated $540 million of the required $1.24 billion required to respond to the urgent needs of 12.3 million drought-affected people have been received. Many sectors remain largely unfunded. Food security, which constitutes 80 per cent of the response requirements, has received significant and important support to date – $461 million – from donors including USAID, DFID, ECHO, Japan, the World Bank, the Government of Malawi and CERF. However, this represents less than half of the funds required for the sector. The humanitarian drought response remains significantly underfunded in all countries, with only 11 per cent of the funding required for the Angola response received to date.

Funding Status by Country, as at 31 August 2016

Source: UNRCO. Data partial and incomplete. *Swaziland funding data based on draft HRP, to be confirmed and subject to future updates.


The Southern Africa El Niño-induced drought response plan, 2016 SADC: Regional Humanitarian Appeal, June 2016 Southern Africa El Niño-Induced Drought: RIASCO Action Plan Update No. 1