Southern Africa facing its worst drought in 35 years

The impact of the current El Niño is felt globally, affecting over 60 million people. Southern Africa is of particular concern as the region is facing its worst drought in 35 years, with an estimated 40 million people facing food insecurity, including some 23 million in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Five countries – Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe – have already declared national emergencies, in addition to eight out of nine provinces in South Africa that collectively account for 90 per cent of the country’s maize production. Mozambique has also issued an institutional red alert for its most affected central and southern provinces. While the current diminished harvest provides some temporary respite, the lean season will start earlier than normal and food insecurity is expected to peak between October 2016 and March 2017. The time is now to scale-up the humanitarian response and preserve development gains.

In addition, there is a high probability of La Niña phenomenon toward the end of this year, which is likely to exacerbate the humanitarian situation, as coping capacity has been eroded. Contingency plans need to incorporate the possibility of localized flooding, and due to the reduced capacity of vulnerable farmers to access inputs, there is a need for interventions now that enable people to capitalize on potentially good rains. The aggregated scale of need in the region is on a par with the drought in Ethiopia and there needs to be a commensurate response from international donors in support of the Southern Africa region.

Co-hosted by DFID and OCHA, the focus of this conference was to raise the profile of the impacts of El Niño and La Niña in Southern Africa, to better understand the severe impacts of the crisis at local, national and regional levels, and discuss how donors and partners can come together to provide a coordinated and rapid response. DFID has already responded by scaling up response in countries where they have a presence. UN agencies and partners have also geared up to increase response and promote the visibility of the crisis. This has included the appointment of two special envoys on El Niño and Climate, Ms. Mary Robinson and Ambassador Macharia Kamau. However, more needs to be done and we have a narrowing window of opportunity to reduce mortality, alleviate suffering and enable early recovery.

The development of a SADC Regional Drought Appeal, which will be launched in Botswana at the end of July, represents a step change in government leadership to humanitarian crises in the region. UN agencies have supported the development of the Appeal through the Regional Interagency Standing Committee (RIASCO) and secondments to SADC’s newly formed regional El Niño coordination centre. To support SADC and affected member states, the UN and partners have also developed a RIASCO Regional Action Plan, with a requirement of $ 1.2 billion to meet the needs of 12.3 million people in seven most affected countries. However, this is only 17 per cent funded to date.

The Action Plan outlines multi-sectorial humanitarian action addressing not only food insecurity, but also increased levels of malnutrition, reduced availability of potable water, higher school drop-out rates, and increased incidence of communicable diseases. It is imperative that national and regional planning to respond to this exceptional drought continues to include all mechanisms of assistance, including providing humanitarian assistance, promoting resilience through for example the development of shock-responsive national social protection systems, addressing macro-economic impacts and developing risk mitigation measures.


Given the range of response required and the actors involved, we will need to continue to strengthen coordination efforts both at regional and national levels, through supporting SADC, RIASCO and sector coordination, particularly in areas such as Food, Livelihoods, Health and Nutrition, WASH, Protection, and Education. In this regard, there is a pressing need for IASC to step up coordinated multi-sectoral assessment and coordination in priority countries. We encourage efforts to strengthen the assessment of needs in the areas of health and protection, in particular, which can help better inform early warning and early response for natural disasters and communicable disease outbreaks such as yellow fever and cholera epidemics now present in the region.

Lastly, we acknowledge the importance of understanding the private sector’s ability to support the response, including through addressing shortfalls in agricultural production, and encourage its contribution. We will need to work with the private sector to enable the predictable importation of key commodities into, and across the region, looking to ease or remove barriers.

Delivering the right response for the millions affected across this region is an important test of our ability to collaborate across borders, institutional and sectoral boundaries, as well as to put the needs of the acutely vulnerable at the heart of our collective efforts, as agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit convened by the Secretary-General in May this year.-Reliefweb