Our Burning Planet


Dying crops, food and water shortages — drought affects millions in southern Africa

Dying crops, food and water shortages — drought affects millions in southern Africa
Farmer Kaunga Ngoma inspects his maize field affected by drought in Mazabuka, Southern Province, Zambia, on 20 March 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Chona Mwemba)

Severe drought in southern Africa, exacerbated by El Niño, has led to extreme food insecurity and water shortages for millions. A recent study attributed the drought primarily to this weather pattern, rather than human-induced climate change.

The southern African region is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades and an estimated 20 million people now face “crisis levels of acute hunger” and water shortages amid a growing climate crisis, fuelled by the El Niño weather phenomenon. The drought has affected critical crops and livestock, exacerbating already persistent high food prices. 

A new study by the World Weather Attribution, presented on 18 April 2024, has found that the severe drought was driven primarily by El Niño, rather than human-caused climate change, and that with these El Niño conditions, droughts of this severity would likely be happening at least twice in every decade.

Given the devastating impacts of this year’s drought, the study emphasises that drought preparedness in southern Africa is critical to avoid food shortages in future El Niño years – which is expected to occur more frequently as the climate continues to warm.

The study states: “From January 2024, large parts of southern Africa experienced significantly below-average rainfall, with Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique and Botswana receiving less than 20% of the typical rainfall expected for February, with devastating consequences for the population largely depending on rain-fed agriculture.”

The drought also led to dramatic water shortages, particularly in Zambia and Zimbabwe, where water supply infrastructure was underdeveloped. As a consequence, the countries had been battling major outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases.

drought southern africa

Farmer Kaunga Ngoma shows maize affected by drought in Mazabuka, Southern Province, Zambia, on 20 March 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Chona Mwemba)

The affected countries also face an increased risk of severe food insecurity between the current and the next rainy season. Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi have already declared a national disaster over the drought.

In March, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a State of Drought Disaster due to the severe food situation caused by the El Niño effect and said they were mobilising resources to help affected communities and mitigate the impact of this natural disaster.

Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema also declared a national disaster and emergency, saying the prolonged dry spell had affected Zambia’s food and energy security.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s neighbours bear the brunt of dry weather pattern

Scientists from Zambia, Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK assessed in the study to what extent the 2024 El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) state as well as human-induced climate change altered the likelihood and intensity of the low rainfall that led to debilitating drought, and the increase in evaporation due to climate change, exacerbating drought severity.

The study looked at the most affected countries – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique – but only the southern parts of the last two countries, to study a climatologically similar region. They focused on December to February, the peak of the rainy season in the region.

The analyses show that El Niño significantly increases the likelihood of such drought, while climate change did not emerge as the significant driver of drought in the affected countries.

Severe droughts twice as likely to occur in El Niño years

Using four different observational data products, they found that droughts such as this were expected to occur in today’s climate once every decade. However, when they considered the effect of El Niño, they found that these droughts were twice as likely to occur in El Niño years, making El Niño a key driver of the 2024 event.

To analyse the role of human-induced climate change, the relationship between global warming and rainfall anomalies in observation-based data products was analysed, with the conclusion that as global temperatures increase, rainfall between December and February also increases. 

This meant that in the current climate, with 1.2°C warming, droughts such as this were less likely than in a cooler, pre-industrial climate. 

To further evaluate the role of climate change in the current drought, the scientists combined the observations with climate models. They said the models that passed the model evaluation did not show a significant relationship between rainfall and global warming levels with increasing global temperatures.

Dying crops, food shortages and millions of people affected

Bernardino Nhantumbo, a researcher at the Mozambique National Institute of Meteorology and one of the study’s authors, said the main concern for drought in the present year started from December to January, which was the peak period for the rainy season in southern Africa and extremely important because rain-fed agriculture was the main activity for most of the communities.

“When you have very low rainfall, it means that most of the crops will die, causing food shortages and millions of people will be affected… The drought we have been observing was mainly moving from the west side of the subcontinent to the east side, and it affected countries in different periods, but January into February was shown to be a peak of it,” he said.

Joyce Kimutai, another author of the study and researcher at the Grantham Institute, a climate change and environment centre at Imperial College London, said this study was confined to Botswana, Zimbabwe and southern parts of Zambia and Mozambique to better understand a region where the climate was similar, and the drivers of the rainfall.

“What we looked at is the rainfall deficit and effective rainfall, which is basically incorporating evapotranspiration (loss of water from soil and plants). What we found is that these very strong droughts experienced in this season are likely expected to happen at least once every 10 years. So, every decade we’re likely to see these [droughts] in this current climate where we have a warming of at least 1.5°C.

“But then we went ahead to understand what would be the influence of El Niño; 2023 was a strong El Niño year and this means it was one of the warmest years on record. We realised that with these El Niño conditions, we are likely to see such droughts happening at least twice in every decade,” she said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Record drought imperils food, copper output in southern Africa

In El Niño years, Kimutai said they found that these droughts were becoming twice as likely.

“It was very clear from our analysis that the El Niño played a key role in the severity of the drought conditions that were experienced, and we couldn’t find a very clear role of climate change so we didn’t consider it a significant driver for this drought.”

She said El Niño events will continue to happen and there had been research that showed their cycles were continuing more frequently; they used to be maybe once every seven years, but studies now show they happen at least once every three to five years.

“Over the past year, attribution studies have shown that many extreme weather events have been driven by a combination of both climate change and El Niño. The southern Africa drought appears to be a rare example of an event fuelled primarily by El Niño.”

Kimutai added that with more frequent and severe El Niño events, drought resilience needed to be strengthened in southern Africa to ensure farmers and farming systems were more resilient and adapted to droughts, especially in these parts of the continent.

Vulnerability and exposure

The drought in southern Africa occurred during the traditional growing season for key staple crops such as maize and coincided with multiple high pre-existing levels of vulnerability and exposure.

Maja Vahlberg, one of the study’s authors and a risk consultant at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, said: “What we conclude in this study is that multiple drivers contributed to the currently high and rising food insecurity and malnutrition levels. This drought is compounded by pre-existing high food prices, economic challenges, livestock and crop pests and diseases, and ongoing recovery from shocks including floods and cholera outbreaks.

“Chronic vulnerability to drought disproportionately affects rural populations dependent on small-scale and rain-fed agriculture and livestock herding, as well as marginalised groups like female-headed households and those living with HIV and Aids,” she said. 

Vahlberg added that high deforestation rates across Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, in particular, exacerbate the risk and impacts associated with the drought. 

The study also concluded that maintaining traditional land governance systems with appropriate integration into modern frameworks was “crucial for sustainable land management and reducing drought vulnerability in southern Africa”. 

In addition, it found that effective early warning systems, anticipatory action and coordinated emergency response efforts were in place, but could be further strengthened by commitments to shock-responsive social protection systems.

Disaster response

The African Risk Capacity (ARC) Group discussed the response to this drought emergency to minimise the impact on the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable as about 20 million people were now facing crisis levels of acute hunger because of the El Niño-induced drought. They estimated that 20 million people in southern Africa were now facing crisis levels of acute hunger because of the drought.

World Food Programme Southern Africa regional director Menghestab Haile said: “The drought is hitting at a time of significant protracted unmet needs, with alarming food insecurity and malnutrition levels, and funding shortages that have stalled humanitarian activities… The drought has decimated livelihoods across southern Africa.”

The affected countries have varying levels of development, infrastructure and governance systems that affect their ability to respond to the drought. According to the study, Botswana was relatively more developed than the other countries and its economy and people were less reliant on rain-fed agriculture, resulting in fewer impacts. 

However, before the start of the 2023/24 agricultural season, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe joined the ARC risk pools for drought as a means to respond to disasters like this, and based on early projections from ARC’s season monitoring tools, all four countries are likely to receive insurance payouts.

ARC said this would be confirmed at the end of the season and that the risk pools, run by the insurance affiliate of the ARC Group (ARC Limited), responsible for risk pooling and transfer, will provide timely funds to facilitate early response to a disaster event.

Ahead of the end of the agricultural season, ARC and the in-country technical working groups of the four countries are finalising the final implementation plans which outline the use of an ARC payout ahead of the end of the season. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Yes, it’s called weather cycles and has been happening for millenia

    • J vN says:

      Snap! Was about to post the exact same thing. There are clear, 11-year cycles of drought in SA, and these have been known about for decades. For example, 1983 and 1994 were two hot and dry years. The over-dramatic alarmist twaddle above is nothing but cheap sensationalism.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Not Climate Change but El Nino….Who would have believed

    • Trevor Gray says:

      Dear Ben Harper, you are clearly a climate change denialist! Yes there is a cycle at play. HOWEVER the issue remains that the warmer water in the Moz channel due higher surface temparatures fuel the El Nino effect. The report emphasizes this. It follows that there is a need to mitigate this. The best way is to limit the ever increasing surface temperatures. Does this ring a bell? The extreme weather conditions we have experienced throughout the country cannot be dismissed as merely simple weather cycles. Events which are considered once every 25 or 50 or even 100 year occurrences are happening far more frequently than what our infrustructure can withstand. Would you prefer to fob this off as normal?

      • Paul Van Uytrecht says:

        Trevor Gray – exactly.
        “She said El Niño events will continue to happen and there had been research that showed their cycles were continuing more frequently; they used to be maybe once every seven years, but studies now show they happen at least once every three to five years.
        “But then we went ahead to understand what would be the influence of El Niño; 2023 was a strong El Niño year and this means it was one of the warmest years on record. We realised that with these El Niño conditions, we are likely to see such droughts happening at least twice in every decade,” she said.”

      • Ben Harper says:

        Dear Trevor Gray, keep kidding yourself. Weather patterns constantly change and have been for millennia. Climate alarmists love to look at a VERY narrow window of time for their comparisons whilst completely ignoring weather patterns and climate change going back thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. And still to this day there is NO evidence that reducing CO2 emissions will make any difference whatsoever.

  • Ray Jones says:

    Within a few months of arrival in SA, in 1980, all these facts were made aware to the Public and the Government at the time, knew very well, what would be the outcome in today’s world. They signed a 30 year project, to be completed in 2011, with the Lesotho government and they were to build Retaining Dams, in several areas of the Country, in order to a levitate the known crisis that would occur. Today, the project is far from complete, so, i ask, what happened to the funding.

  • Rob Fisher says:

    Please can we finally learn to capture the rain in the soil when it rains!
    A quick internet search for artificial recharge will garner plenty of very cheap and effective methods. The Australians seem to have learnt their lessons and are doing something. But Africa and the USA just carry on with a slash and burn mind set. Dongas and other erosion and bare hard soil are the norm.
    Save the rain today and you will have water next year!

    • Trevor Gray says:

      This is a topic I have often mulled over. In terms of dams SA has only one system it has not tapped which is an area not practical for this purpose.
      In terms of saving the water, it is not a simple exercise as is the artificial recharge methods you refer to. As for Australia, YES they have made progress but have significent challenges which they are still grappling with.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Lake Kariba – the largest lake in Southern Africa is apparently on 13% full. This drought has been a long time coming, has been totally mismanaged by an “inexperienced” government and is one of the many reasons Zimbabwians are flooding into South Africa. If South Africa does not accept them on humanitarian grounds, will this be considered Genocide?
    Perhaps we will soon see if the ANC government can put their money where their mouths are!

  • Bob Fraser says:

    Bob F April 24th 2024 at 07:42
    Changing weather patterns around the world very definitely affect food production leading to starvation, but in general the African people need to seriously consider the fact that too many children are being born. In many cases one will see an African woman (no not woman but girl) with 3 children all under 5 years old. If governments did something to control the population explosion among their people the problem of food shortages could be greatly reduced.

    • Clare Rothwell says:

      It’s simple to reduce population growth. Men can choose to stop impregnating women and girls.

      • J vN says:

        Last time I checked, procreation required 2 willing participants…

      • Jane Crankshaw says:

        ….and if they do impregnate them at least be around to look after them financially and not rely on tax payers ( in countries where their are actual taxpayers) to do the job – government grants are a just an incentive for irresponsible people!

    • James McMichael says:

      Bob, 100% on point but while an overwhelmingly obvious fact, all of the “PC” commentators seem determined to never discuss this root cause issue, at all costs. Bizarre. Only long term solution is to genuinely empower women to take control of their own lives but toxic patriarchy all across Africa is a lethal foe, dressed us as “cultural” in nature.

    • Paul Van Uytrecht says:

      It is accepted by those who study population growth that there is a strong correlation between increasing material well-being and a decline in population growth rates. Another example of the ANC squandering opportunities over the last 30 years.

  • mzeemzinga says:

    Recently I stayed with a farmer near Mazabuka , Zambia. He practises no- till rain – fed maize farming. In spite of the devastating drought he harvested 3 tons per hectare for his maize. Conventional farmers nearby who plough and leave no mulch to cover the soil have failed completely , they will get no maize at all. Conservation no till agriculture can produce food even in times of drought.

  • Lorraine Jenks says:

    Why are crops dying when South Africa spends a fortune on “drought resistant” GM (genetically modified) seed and the toxic chemicals that have to be sprayed on these?
    The only country in the world where our staple food is GM.
    Surely we should be the study that proves the success of foreign corporations applying “solutions”.

  • Johan Herholdt says:

    Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe? With the exeption of Zambia, much of the insurance payouts will end up in the pockets of politically-connected elites and little will be spent on long-term drought-mitigation programmes. The aid provided will largely go to buy votes in some shape or form.

  • Richard Owen says:

    Pfumvudza method developed and promoted by Foundations for Farming (foundationsforfarming.org) focuses on conservation mulch intensive farming methods for a small plot that focuses on food security and it has been highly successful during drought years.
    This year’s devastating drought will hopefully convince governments on the region to support pfumvudza in practical ways.
    In 2020/21 (?) Govt of Zimbabwe supported rural farmers with significant farming inputs based on actual field preparation for pfumvudza farming, including field layout and mulch applications. Farmers responded and received the inputs / support and the impacts of the drought were greatly mitigated. One interesting impact was that much mulch had been collected and used, resulting in a massive reduction in bush fires in that dry season in Zimbabwe as compared to neighbouring countries.
    Drought is cyclical in the region and will visit us again soon enough.
    Wise governance and smart support for food security farming methods can work and have worked before. The region should prepare for the next drought by adopting drought resilient farming systems.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

As the school year starts again, thousands of children will not have the basics (like books) to learn from.

81% of children aged 10 cannot read for meaning in South Africa.

For every copy of MavericKids sold from the Daily Maverick shop, we will donate a copy to Gift of the Givers for learners in need. If you don't have a child in your life, you can donate both copies.

Small effort, big impact.