There is growing scientific analysis that suggests the impacts of current and recent droughts in East Africa are likely to have been worsened by climate change. Climate change is not a distant, future threat: it is helping fuel emerging catastrophes in which it has combined with poverty, chronic malnutrition, weak governance, conflict and drought and created a perfect storm.
People are struggling for their lives as climate change aggravates already terrible situations.
The carcass of a camel near an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Fadigaab, Garadag District, Somaliland. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam
Understanding the impacts of climate change
Nearly 11 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are dangerously hungry and in need of humanitarian assistance because of a climate change-fuelled drought. The worst drought-affected areas in Somalia are on the brink of famine. The crisis could deteriorate significantly over the coming weeks, as rainfall in March and early April was very low in places and poor rainfall is forecast for April through June, which is the end of the rainy season.
For many in East Africa, this drought is the worst they’ve ever experienced, or even heard of.
Farmers and crop-growers are most at risk. They rely on livestock and crops for their food and income, and this severe, prolonged drought is having a serious impact on this.
Food and water for livestock – like camels, sheep and goats – is scarce. Farmers are struggling to keep their livestock alive, and without livestock, they’re without food and a means of making a living. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam
Due to the rise in temperature, fertile ground is drying out. This is preventing food from growing successfully and impacting families’ ability to eat those crops or sell them for profit at a market.
Scarce and erratic rainfall is also causing major issues. Farmers cannot rely on predictable rainfall which means they cannot plan their cultivating and harvesting of crops well. Shifts at the beginning and end of the rainy season, as well as unpredictable rains throughout the season, can ruin crops and leave families with no food or income.
The hot, dry weather and erratic rains are also starving and killing livestock – another food and income source for families.
Drought and the climate change connection
Climate change is real and happening now. The past three years have been the hottest on record, and average global temperatures are now one degree Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels – largely due to human activities.
Experts have long predicted that the frequency and intensity of droughts would increase as a result of climate change.
Here are two main factors to look at with regard to climate change and the crises in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia:
Rising temperatures: temperatures have been consistently higher in these areas, and there’s a lot of evidence saying climate change is a big contributor to this. These hotter temperatures are fuelling drought.
Higher temperatures means moisture evaporates more, which dries out soil, prevents crops from growing successfully and makes it difficult for farmers to feed their livestock.
Scarce and unpredictable rains: the link between reduced rainfall and climate change is less definitive than the link between higher temperatures and climate change; however the decline in rainfall over the last three decades is unprecedented in persistence and intensity.
Given East Africa is already prone to droughts and has high year-to-year variability in its climate, there is disagreement over what is natural variability and what may be caused by climate change.
Most published research has focused on climate change’s impact on the total amount of rain over a season, rather than changes in within-season rainfall patterns. The amount of total rainfall matters, but when looking at a region dominated by rain-fed agriculture, increasingly erratic rains are also a major problem.
Seynes Awil is a mother-of-eight. Her family used to have 400 sheep, 100 camels and seven donkeys. Because of the drought, they now only have three animals left. She’s pictured here showing what remains of her family’s food stock. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam
Governments across the region and around the world need to step up, take responsibility, and provide humanitarian assistance to save lives now. Short-term humanitarian aid needs to be coupled with support to promote the resilience of farmers and crop-growers. They live off the things that they grow – the very things that climate change is impacting.
Without global efforts to reduce emissions and to help the world’s poorest people cope with the effects of climate change, this crisis will continue to repeat itself.
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