EU Science Hub

El Niño - devastating impact on southern Africa’s harvests and food security

Bowl of food meal
Feb 12 2016

Southern Africa is currently in the grip of an intense drought that has expanded and strengthened since the earliest stages of the 2015-2016 agricultural season, driven by one of the strongest El Niño events of the last 50 years. Across large swathes of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Madagascar, the current rainfall season has so far been the driest in the last 35 years. Agricultural areas in northern Namibia and southern Angola have also experienced high levels of water deficit and crops have failed before the arrival of late rainfall at the end of January.

According to a joint statement published on 12 February by the World Food Programme (WFP), the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the JRC, while it is too early to provide detailed estimates of the population likely to be food insecure in 2016-2017, it is expected that the population in need of emergency food assistance and livelihood recovery support will increase significantly. Additional assistance will be required to help food-insecure households manage an extended 2016 lean season.

Map of southern Africa seasonal rainfall October 2015 to January 2016
Seasonal rainfall from October 2015 to January 2016 in southern Africa ranked within the last 35 years. Note large areas falling within the three driest seasons since 1981. Areas where such extremes have not been reached have also registered significant rainfall deficits. WFP-VAM based on CHIRPS v2.0 rainfall data.
© World Food Programme, 2016

Much of southern Africa has consequently experienced significant delays in planting and very poor conditions for early crop development and pasture regrowth. In many areas, planting has not been possible due to 30- to 50-day delays in the onset of rains and there has been widespread crop failure. Although there has been some relief since mid-January in certain areas, the window of opportunity for the successful planting of crops under rain-fed conditions is nearly closed.  Even assuming normal rainfall for the remainder of the season, crop water balance models indicate poor performance of maize over a widespread area.

Seasonal forecasts from a variety of sources (ECMWF, NOAA CPC, UKMet, IRI) are unanimous in predicting a continuation of below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures across most of the region for the remainder of the growing season.

The combination of a poor 2014-2015 season, an extremely dry early season (October to December) and forecasts for continuing hot and drier-than-average conditions through mid-2016, suggest a scenario of extensive, regional-scale crop failure. South Africa has issued a preliminary forecast of maize production for the coming harvest of 7.4 million tonnes, a drop of 25% from the already poor production levels of last season and 36% below the five-year average. For more detailed information, see the South African Grain Information Service website.

Map of southern Africa showing harvest perspectives
GEOGLAM multi-agency assessment of the southern Africa maize harvest perspectives. Note considerable areas with projected poor or failure end of season production status. See more at:
© GEOGLAM, 2016

These conditions follow a 2014-2015 agricultural season that was similarly characterized by hot, dry conditions and a 23% drop in regional cereal production. This increased the region’s vulnerability due to the depletion of regional cereal stocks, higher-than-average food prices and substantially increased food insecurity: even before the current crisis began, the number of food insecure people in the region (not including South Africa), already stood at 14 million[1], according to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). As of early February, FEWS NET estimates that, of this total, at least 2.5 million people are in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and require urgent humanitarian assistance to protect livelihoods and household food consumption.

The numbers of the food insecure population are now increasing due to the current drought and high market prices (maize prices in South Africa and Malawi are at record highs in February). Drought emergencies have been declared in most of South Africa’s provinces as well as in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho. Water authorities in Botswana, Swaziland, South Africa, and Namibia are limiting water usage because of low water levels. Power outages have been occurring more frequently in Zambia and Zimbabwe as water levels at the Kariba dam have become much lower than usual.

While it is too early to provide detailed estimates of the population likely to be food insecure in 2016-2017, it is expected that the population in need of emergency food assistance (including cash based responses where appropriate) and livelihood recovery support will increase significantly. Additional assistance will be required to help food insecure households manage an extended 2016 lean season.

In the short term, close monitoring of the season is necessary to inform decision making on programming and targeting. Immediate additional assistance is required to help currently food-insecure households, as well as increased support to the ongoing interventions to sustain the resilience of affected populations. Also contingency plans need to be updated, advocacy intensified and resources mobilised to address the impact of an extended post-2016 harvest lean season.

The above actions should be followed by increasing awareness of the need for a regional approach to address the effects of drought that are becoming more frequent and intense. There should be more advocacy on governments to anticipate responses to crises in a more effective, efficient and appropriate manner..
Over the coming year, humanitarian partners should prepare themselves for food insecurity levels and food insecure population numbers in southern Africa to be at their highest levels since the 2002-2003 food crisis.

EU Humanitarian aid to southern Africa

The EU has promptly reacted to the food insecurity in southern Africa and in other parts of the world with the adoption of an "El Niño package" on 2 December 2015. Out of €125 million allocated to Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean region, €12 million has been reserved to provide food assistance to various countries of southern Africa, including Angola, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland, Lesotho and Madagascar.

The EU has also allocated €5 million to southern Africa in 2016 to support disaster risk reduction activities and mitigate the impact of natural disasters (especially drought, floods and cyclones) recurrently affecting Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar.


[1]See, page 5 for official SADC numbers at the start of the season. Not including South Africa, the 14 million includes 7.6 million in currently drought affected countries, plus 6.6 million in DRC (where conflict, not drought is the driver of food insecurity) and 0.4 million in Tanzania which is not drought affected during El Niño. South Africa is excluded as its figures are not directly comparable.