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The skull of a dead steer lies on eroded soil
Image: picture-alliances/dpa//K. Ludbrock

El Nino in Africa

Antonio Cascais/ck
May 24, 2016

El Nino was one of the main issues at the first World Summit for Humanitarian Aid in Istanbul. As a result of this weather phenomenon, many African countries are being severely hit by drought, hunger and floods.


Extreme drought followed by massive rainfall: the weather phenomenon El Nino is at the root of famine and floods in many African countries. While nations in southern Africa are suffering from the lowest rainfall in 35 years, the east of the continent is experiencing massive floods. Epidemics of cholera, malaria, measles and scabies follow. The UN World Food Program has raised the alarm: more than 20 million people in East Africa, and 14 million in the southern part of the continent, lack food. Will the international community be able to cope with this catastrophe? This was one of the central issues up for debate at the World Summit for Humanitarian Aid in Istanbul, on May 23 and 24. Here is an overview of the situation in the worst affected countries.

Ethiopia: drought followed by floods

Countries on the Horn of Africa are suffering from one of the worst droughts of the last 35 years. The Ethiopian Food Program is providing for almost eight million people. Another ten million need help urgently.

Fields are drying up and the herds are dying. 37-year-old Dahbo and his family used to own 200 goats, 20 cows and ten camels. They now have three animals left. "Without our cattle we will never again be able to lead the life I've known since I was a child," Dahbo says. After the drought, it is the turn of the rains. Recent flash floods killed 28 shepherds. Last October, the Ethiopian government asked their international partners for help. The European Commission's department for humanitarian aid has promised assistance worth 122 million euros ($136 million).

South Africa: Africa's breadbasket is empty

The UN World Food Program estimates that 16 million people in southern Africa are affected by the El Nino phenomenon, and that's not counting the drastic increase of numbers in South Africa. Seven of the country's nine provinces have been declared disaster areas. The government has channeled the equivalent of 55 million euros towards emergency aid. A country which normally produces so much corn that it can provide for the needs in neighboring Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland is now forced to import huge quantities.

Hunger in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe declared a state of emergency back in February. Owing to the drought, today almost one out of three Zimbabweans is dependent on aid. In the past twelve months, rain precipitation was about half that of the previous year.

Two hands holding earthworms
Zimbabweans are getting desperate for foodImage: picture alliance/dpa/A. Ufumeli

The situation is particularly dire in the Mudzi district in northeastern Zimbabwe, on the border with Mozambique. Over 85 percent of the population there is dependent on food aid.

The secretary-general of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Elhadj As Sy visited the area in mid-May. He told DW: "You can see the consequences of climate change very clearly. The fields, usually filled to the brim at this time of year, are almost completely empty. There is drought everywhere under the merciless sun."

At the summit in Istanbul, Elhadj As Sy was planning to call on the international community to donate $150 million immediately.

Malawi: bad disaster management

Malawi is also suffering from extreme drought. Prices for staple foods like corn, beans and rice, have risen steeply. Elhadj As Sy says the last crops failed miserably. People this year have less than five percent of the amount produced in recent years at their disposal. The poor have no money to buy food. More than half of the country's population of 15 million is now dependent on aid. Malawi's President Peter Mutharika declared a state of emergency in April and called on the world to help.

DW correspondent Mirriam Kaliza says the country's disaster management lacks efficiency. Recently, a new department was created but it has proved hard to implement the measures decided. Kaliza believes that sooner rather than later, the government will have to change its agricultural policy. Water, which is becoming ever scarcer, must be better stored and the seeds sown should be better adapted to the dry climate.

Mozambique: drought in the south, floods in the north

A river runs through the savannah of the Limpopo National Park of Gaza Province, in southern Mozambique. But there is not very much left of this river. The bed has been almost dry for months. Residents are only able to get some water because they have drilled a small well in the middle of the river bed.

Most water sources in the country have dried up. Much of the water that can still be found is salty. Animals are dying and the harvest will be even more meager than last year. A total of 600,000 Mozambicans are dependent on emergency aid. Authorities expect the number to increase significantly in the next couple of weeks. Rita Namucho, spokesperson for the country's national water utilities, is very worried about the situation in Combumune: "For the last few months it has been possible to cross the river on foot. This is unusual because we are still in the rainy season."

A girl in a blue veil and her donkey walk across a parched stretch of land
In many African countries, farmers have lost crops and herders and cattle farmers have lost their livestockImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. J. Sia

While the south of Mozambique needs rain urgently, the north is being hit by floods. A few weeks ago, a huge area of the province of Cabo Delgado was submerged after torrential rains. More than 75 millimeters (2.9 inches) of rain fell in 24 hours. Not even the oldest residents remember ever having seen such heavy rain in this region.

Maurício Chirinda, director of the Mozambican Center for Civil Protection, says that recent rains in the north have destroyed 3,500 houses. "Many people drowned in the floods," Chirinda told DW. Rita Namucho says Mozambique is one of the ten countries of the world hardest hit by climate change. "The measurements we have taken over many years indicate that we will probably have more than one year of drought," Namucho told DW.

Angola's government 'is looking away'

In Angola, the areas most affected by drought are the southern provinces of Cunene and Huila. DW correspondents have reported about people dying of hunger in an area inhabited by some three million people. Francisco Fingo, of the civil right organization "Associacao Construindo Comunidades" (building communities), points his finger at the Angolan government, saying the administration promised to deliver rice and cooking oil to the region in coming months, but nothing had happened. "We have repeatedly called attention to the problem of climate change. We have pressured the government to introduce new ways to store water. But they do nothing, they just look away," Fingo told DW. The activist also criticized the state media: "Angolans living in the capital Luanda in the north have no inkling that we have a drought problem here."

Columbus Mavhunga, Leonel Matias, Filipa Gaspar and James Jeffrey contributed to this report.

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