This year’s El Niño is one of the three strongest ever recorded; record-high ocean temperatures have been driving severe drought conditions from California to Vietnam. And now the drought is hitting southern Africa, where it is poised to do considerable damage over the next few months. The NYT:
The United States on Monday announced $127 million in aid for southern African countries where the worst drought in decades is affecting millions of people, stunting children and tempting some farmers to eat their grains instead of saving them as seed for the next crop.
The region’s most severe drought in 35 years is also a growing health crisis. One-third of the world’s HIV-infected population lives in southern Africa, and the United Nations says people cannot take their treatment on an empty stomach.
In Zimbabwe, once a food exporter to its neighbors and now gripped by an economic crisis, some have been selling their cattle for as low as $50, explaining that the animals are bound to die anyway.
Crop yields have faltered. Malnutrition rates are jumping higher. And food prices will continue to rise for the next year, according to central bankers in the region.
Yes, policy has in some places exacerbated the effects of the southern African drought. Zimbabwe, for example, has never recovered from the disastrous land seizures that wrecked its agricultural sector more than a decade ago. But even with good governance and wise policy, the negative consequences of this drought could not have been fully avoided. This year’s weather has been just too devastating. Even South Africa’s robust, industrial-scale agricultural sector has taken a major hit. Reuters:
In South Africa, the continent’s biggest producer of maize, the crop is projected to fall almost 30 percent to around 7 million tonnes, which will force Africa’s most industrialized country to import close to 4 million tonnes. […]
Food inflation in South Africa soared to 12.8 percent in April from 4.1 percent in June last year and remains over 12 percent, pressuring the wider inflation rate which stands at 6.3 percent, above the central bank’s target range.
What’s most important at this particular juncture isn’t to point fingers at who’s to blame for the policies that have worsened the crisis—Mugabe and his ilk remain unpersuaded despite years of Western prodding—instead, the focus needs to be on delivering immediate relief to stave off the worst consequences of the drought. Until the next crops mature in March, we could see upheaval and instability strike southern Africa as food prices skyrocket and hungry citizens riot.
Here’s what’s really at stake in this drought: This year’s food crisis could undo decades of steady gains in southern Africa. What good is President Bush’s PEPFAR program if HIV/AIDS patients can’t take their antiretroviral medicines because of an empty stomach? How will the push for educational attainment continue if students can’t focus in school, or if their families call them back home because suddenly they need the extra labor to eke out a small harvest on marginal land?
That’s why providing drought relief now is not just a humanitarian concern (although it’s safe to say no one wants a repeat of the 2010-2012 famine in the Horn of Africa, which killed over 260,000 people)—it’s also the essential condition for achieving America’s other foreign policy goals in the region. To win allies and boost stability in the region, America needs to follow a back to basics approach to development in Africa: focus on delivering the cost-efficient essentials like nutrition, vaccines, clean water, basic infrastructure, and reliable electricity before moving on to other important goals, like helping countries ramp up universal education or design large-scale healthcare systems.
Southern Africa is experiencing a severe drought, which has left 40% of the population in Malawi in need of humanitarian assistance. Dr. Biden visited a village in rural Malawi today to see firsthand the effects of the @USAID Food for Peace program, which is helping to address the challenges posed by the drought and to announce $20 million in U.S. assistance for vulnerable, food insecure communities in Malawi.
America’s $127 million commitment to relief, much of it earmarked for severely impacted places like Malawi, is a start. But it will take much more funding from international bodies, NGOs, and other wealthy nations—as well as vigilant oversight to guard against corruption in food distribution—to head off a predictable disaster in a relatively quiet region that’s achieved some incremental gains in the past few years.
As for what comes after the drought, there’s no reason to despair that food shortages will always be a recurring feature of life in Africa. If the continent takes advantage of its immense agricultural potential, employing advanced farming practices embracing technological breakthroughs like GMOs, it could well go from being a vale of hunger to a land of plenty. Quartz:
With 60-65% of the world’s uncultivated arable land and 10% of renewable freshwater resources, Africa’s immense agricultural potential has long been a keen point of discussion among agronomists and global decision-makers. After a 160% increase in African agricultural output over the past 30 years, many elements of the continent’s food production process look to be on an upward trajectory.
To get a sense of the long-term potential for agriculture in Africa, it’s worth reading the whole thing.