For more than two decades now, the threat of global warming and the associated changes to climate has been a near universal refrain among policy makers. It has almost become dogma in East Africa that climate change is equal to increased risk of drought and hunger.
Yet recent experience across East Africa suggests that the reverse might be true. The region has been experiencing more episodes of excessive rainfall, often catching authorities off-guard. That is because disaster planning has been premised around scenarios of crop failure resulting from a drop in precipitation. While any disaster that affects crop performance inevitably leads to food shortages and hunger, flooding is different because it forces physical displacement of people whose needs go beyond traditional food aid.
According to research by scientists from the Association for Agriculture Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (Asareca), East Africa should be turning conventional wisdom on its head to prepare for a wetter era. Because rainfall patterns here are determined by sea surface temperatures in the western Pacific, any rise in global temperatures will actually mean more rainfall or El-Nino-like events for Eastern Africa. The recent deluges that have left cities in the region and the lower reaches of the Nile Valley flooded are just a taste of what is yet to come.
The implications are that while policy makers are doing the right thing to plan for disaster, they should be preparing for a double-whammy. Traditional food baskets will likely go under water, rendering them unproductive, while the drylands that are currently populated by pastoralists will become too flooded to sustain livelihoods.
Who will help whom in such a scenario? The prognosis is bad. The Inform Risk Index 2022 places East African countries among those at most risk of suffering humanitarian crises and natural disasters that will be beyond the capacity national response mechanisms. Of the 190 countries surveyed, Somalia and South Sudan are among the he top five at most risk. The DR Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda are among the quantile at most risk.
An oft-ignored point of discussion is the health of soils in Africa’s savannahs. While considered fertile, these soils are actually shallow, averaging a depth of just 30 centimetres. They are able support crops and provide bumper harvests only because of regular rainfall patterns. Flooding or more frequent episodes of drought could see these soils washed away, leaving sterile gravel.
The prospects of what some people are calling double disaster, therefore, is real for East Africa. As Somalia starves today, Sudan is under water.
Even more scary is that current response mechanisms might not be suited to the unfolding crises. Drought-resistant crops will be rendered useless in a situation of increased precipitation, just as will be all responses configured around helping sedentary populations cope with a passing crisis.
Like the biblical Noah-era floods, the coming climate crisis will be deep and prolonged. Countries need to put in place an ‘ark’ that will accommodate climate-imposed mass movement of people, hunger beyond national borders, and even conflict. The impending crisis makes East African economic integration and more liberal markets an even more compelling proposition