More than 20 Million Southern Africans Expected to Face Food Crisis amid El Niño, Conflict
Many areas of Southern Africa are likely to experience below-average rainfall, poor harvests and high levels of acute food insecurity as El Niño continues, according to an alert issued by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).
But even in some parts of the region where normal or above-average rains are forecast, FEWS NET anticipates that other crises, such as ongoing conflicts, will also drive high food assistance needs.
In a new alert, FEWS NET reported that more than 20 million people across Southern Africa are expected to face crisis or worse food security outcomes in early 2024, with Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar likely to bear the brunt of El Niño’s adverse effects.
“Historically, El Niño often results in cumulatively below-average rainfall in Southern Africa, and this El Niño is taking place during Southern Africa’s main agricultural season,” FEWS NET senior food security analyst Benjamin Davies said. “To reduce the risk of a poor harvest in 2024, households will likely plant less land to save their seeds, lowering agricultural labor opportunities, an important source of income for poor households. Most poor households also rely on market purchases for food during this time, but food prices are high. Therefore, lower access to income amid high food prices will limit how much food households can buy.”
Harvests in many parts of Southern Africa underperformed during the 2022-2023 season, both as a result of hot and dry conditions in western parts of the region and impacts of Cyclone Freddy in eastern areas.
FEWS NET forecasts indicate many parts of Southern Africa will experience another poor harvest in 2024 as El Niño drives a below-average October-March rainy season.
“Indicators for a strong, sustained El Niño are present and are forecast to continue into 2024,” Laura Harrison with the UC Santa Barbara Climate Hazards Center said. “While no two El Niños are identical, likely impacts are being identified by the intensity of this event, influence of Indian Ocean conditions and model forecasts.”
The rainy season in Southern Africa is already off to an erratic start, and as a result, agricultural labor opportunities are expected to remain low into the new year. FEWS NET analysts also expect higher-than-average livestock deaths during the second half of 2024 as a result of poor pasture and water conditions.
In addition, maize will likely need to be imported from outside of the region due to impacts of below-average rainfall on the 2024 harvest, driving already inflated maize prices even higher.
According to FEWS NET, all of these issues will make it difficult for poor households in affected regions to grow, purchase or forage for enough food to meet their daily needs.
“Although not a key income source for most poor households in the region, livestock body conditions, particularly cattle, can deteriorate as water and pastures decline atypically early following the 2023-2024 rainy season,” Davies said. “Households with cattle will try and purchase supplementary feed, but the high costs will limit household access. Households will likely begin atypically selling livestock before livestock body conditions and livestock prices decline, decreasing income potential.”
Conversely, in some parts of Southern Africa, forecasts indicate that El Niño will bring normal to above-average rainfall through March 2024. Normal harvests, livestock conditions and labor opportunities are expected in these areas, which include the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), northern Madagascar, northern Mozambique and northern and central Malawi.
Despite these favorable forecasts, in the eastern DRC and Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, ongoing conflict is expected to limit income-earning opportunities and agricultural production, further contributing to high food assistance needs.
“Conflict remains a key driver of emergency food insecurity in the region,” Davies said. “In eastern DRC, multiple local and foreign armed groups are operating in five provinces, leading to widespread displacement and continuing to disrupt household engagement in typical livelihood activities. However, in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, declining levels of conflict are encouraging people who had been displaced by the conflict to return to their areas of origin, but household access to food and income remains low as households slowly begin to recover their typical livelihood activities.”
Furthermore, in Zimbabwe and Malawi, economic conditions are expected to be a key driver of acute food insecurity.
FEWS NET is warning the international community of the need to prepare for a scale-up of humanitarian assistance across the Southern Africa region through 2024 and into 2025.
FEWS NET will continue to track the ongoing El Niño and provide updates on food security outcomes in the countries and regions it monitors. Subscribe to FEWS NET updates to receive food security forecasts directly in your inbox, and follow FEWS NET on Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates.