Food security alert for millions in Southern Africa

DECEMBER 24, 2015

The strongest El Niño weather phenomenon in 18 years is set to cause food shortages for about 6.3 million people in drought-stricken Southern Africa in 2016, a special alert warned this week.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a special alert on Tuesday, warning that a reduced crop and livestock production followed on last year's disappointing season, which has already contributed to higher food prices and "could acutely impact the food security situation in 2016”.

“Food security conditions are already stressed across the sub-region, driven mostly by the reduced 2015 cereal output,” the alert said. “According to … evaluations, the number of vulnerable people was estimated at about 6.3 million, compared to 3.2 million in 2014.”

South Africa has already declared drought status for five provinces, its main cereal producing regions, while Lesotho has issued a drought mitigation plan and Swaziland has implemented water restrictions as reservoir levels have become low.

“Under the context of the already strained conditions and rural households’ limited resilience and high exposure to natural hazards, the presence of a strong El Niño episode in 2015/16 raises serious concerns regarding the impact on food insecurity,” the alert warned.

“A second consecutive reduced cereal harvest could acutely impact on the food security situation in 2016.”

The season for planting maize in Southern Africa has already experienced delays, while crops sown stand to be negatively affected due to inadequate rains and higher temperatures.

"It's the sixth week of the cropping season now and there's not enough moisture in the soil," said Shukri Ahmed, FAO deputy strategic programme leader for resilience.

The region's small-scale farmers are almost entirely dependent on rain, rendering their output highly susceptible to its variations.

While El Niño's impact depends highly on location and season - the impact of El Niño on agricultural production appears more muted in northern areas - past strong episodes have been associated with reduced production in several countries, including South Africa, which is the largest cereal producer in the sub-region and typically exports maize to neighbouring countries, FAO said.

The organisation had already warned in March that the current El Niño would be strong, “and it now appears to be the strongest episode in 18 years”, it said. “It will peak at the start of 2016, before the usual harvest time for farmers in Southern Africa.”

"Weather forecasts indicate a higher probability of a continuation of below-normal rains between December and March across most countries," according to the alert.

-Fin24