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From floods in South Africa to drought in Somalia, climate change is devastating millions of lives

The Globe and Mail
Thursday April 21, 2022

From the parched scrublands of Somalia to the flood-wrecked streets of KwaZulu-Natal, climate change is sweeping across Africa at a faster pace than ever, at a catastrophic cost in human lives.

At opposite corners of the African continent, extreme weather – including massive rainfall and prolonged drought – is inflicting suffering on millions of people. Somalia is facing a looming famine, while drought and hunger are rapidly rising in neighbouring East African countries, leaving millions at risk of starvation. South Africa this week announced a national state of disaster after devastating floods that left nearly 500 people dead or missing.

“These floods are a tragic reminder of the increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change,” South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised speech to the nation on Monday night.

The crises in South Africa and the Horn of Africa are evidence of what climate scientists have warned about for years: Africa is more vulnerable to climate change than anywhere else in the world, and the damage is escalating as extreme weather becomes more common.

The United Nations climate panel, in its latest report this year, said Africa is among the smallest contributors to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet suffers some of the worst devastation. Climate change has damaged food production from crops and livestock across Africa, while also causing water shortages, extreme variability in rainfall and reduced economic growth, it said.

These trends are compounded by poor infrastructure and poor housing that leave communities in danger. “We need to increase our investment in climate adaptation measures to better safeguard communities against the effects of climate change,” Mr. Ramaphosa said.

Last week’s catastrophic flooding along the Indian Ocean coast, largely in KwaZulu-Natal province, has destroyed nearly 4,000 homes and left more than 40,000 people homeless, he said. They also damaged nearly 700 schools and health clinics, and severely disrupted the port of Durban – one of the busiest in Africa, and a vital hub for the South African economy.

The government has deployed 10,000 troops for cleanup operations. “This is a humanitarian disaster that calls for a massive and urgent relief effort,” Mr. Ramaphosa said.

While it is always difficult to attribute any specific weather event to climate change, everything about the South African floods is consistent with climate-change patterns, scientists say. Global warming has meant an increase in ocean surface temperatures, causing more evaporation and rainfall dumps, while the warmer atmosphere over the Indian Ocean means that storms can hold more moisture and produce heavier rainfalls.

There is clear evidence, from South African weather data over the past five decades, that the most destructive storms are becoming more frequent and more damaging. In the KwaZulu-Natal storm, weather stations recorded as much as 311 millimetres of rain over a 24-hour period – double the previous record. Some South Africans called it a “rain bomb.”

While the storm was not a tropical cyclone, it produced rainfall of the magnitude normally found in tropical cyclones, according to the South Africa Weather Service. “Heavy rain events such as the current incident can rightfully be expected to recur in the future and with increasing frequency,” it said in a report on the storm.

South Africa is simultaneously at greater risk of both floods and droughts. In 2018, Cape Town narrowly averted Day Zero – a complete shutdown of water supplies – after three years of drought. It was a once-in-a-century phenomenon, yet it has become three times more likely because of climate change, studies found.

Another study looked at storms this year in three Southern African countries – Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar – and found that climate change is causing an increase in the intensity and likelihood of heavy rainfall from tropical storms.

Five thousand kilometres to the north, meanwhile, millions of Somalis are waiting for rains that never seem to arrive.

Almost a month into the latest rainy season, a deadly drought is continuing, and an official famine declaration is increasingly likely. This follows three consecutive seasons of failed rains in the country, and a series of seven earlier droughts over the previous 15 years.

Relief agencies estimate that six million people – almost 40 per cent of Somalia’s population – are suffering acute food insecurity today, with 745,000 forced to abandon their homes. More than 80,000 people in six regions are already in famine conditions.

“What has changed is the recurrent nature of such shocks,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a report last September.

It noted that Somalia experienced severe drought in six of the years between 2007 and 2016, followed by another season of delayed rains in 2019 and another drought in April last year. Some of the droughts were followed by intense rainfall and flash floods, killing dozens of people and leaving thousands homeless, and then came swarms of locusts destroying crops.

“The recurrent nature of climate shocks leaves little time for people to recover,” the ICRC said.

Across the Horn of Africa, the number of people suffering hunger from drought could rise from the current 14 million to 20 million this year, the UN World Food Programme warned on Tuesday. “Desperately needed rains across the Horn of Africa have so far failed to materialize,” it said.

At least 1.5 million livestock have died in Ethiopia, and the remaining cows are too weak to produce much milk, the UN humanitarian office said. It cited reports of wild animals attacking livestock and children in a fight for survival.

The climate-related crises have been compounded by wars and insurgencies, and now by soaring food prices as a result of the Ukraine war.

In the Sahel region of West Africa, an estimated six million children under the age of five are likely to suffer from acute malnutrition this year, according to UN agencies. The number of people in food insecurity in West and Central Africa has quadrupled over the past three years, reaching 41 million today, with climate change among the causes.


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