By: Tiara Walters
Critical humanitarian aid is needed to rescue plunging food security and save the lives of millions of climate-shocked people across southern Africa. This warning comes from several United Nations agencies, relief organisations and independent experts.
"Countries within the region have experienced failed agricultural seasons back to back. They've not had adequate time to recover from one season before another shock sets in. In some countries, national grain supplies are depleted, and governments and their development partners are looking to external sources to supplement the deficits," Oxfam regional director Nellie Nyang'wa told Our Burning Planet. "They need help urgently. The scale of the drought devastation across southern Africa is staggering."
The nine countries battered by severest levels of food insecurity are Angola, eSwatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA. In a joint call, the UN World Food Programme (WFP), UN Children's Fund (Unicef) as well as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) cite even more disturbing numbers.
“More than 11-million people are now experiencing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity” due to the “deepening drought and climate crisis”, the three organisations declared.
“Severe” or “acute food insecurity”, as defined by the Integrated Phase Classification (the global metric for food insecurity and malnutrition), points to IPC phase three. This means “highly stressed and critical lack of food access with high and above–usual malnutrition and accelerated depletion of livelihood assets that, if continued, will slide the population into phase four or five and/or likely result in chronic poverty”.
Phases of food insecurity, as defined by the Integrated Phase Classification. Source: IPC
According to another UN body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global temperatures have risen 1°C against pre-industrial levels. As southern Africa’s food-security crisis tightens the vice, 1°C brings us to the present tipping point — “3°C brings outright chaos, and 4°C is complete collapse”, as Our Burning Planet’s Leonie Joubert reported in her analysis of the Club of Rome’s recent Cape Town think-tank.
Speaking to news media the day before kick-off to the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid this week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said “drought in some parts of the world is progressing at alarming rates” and “endangering food security”. He added that “climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive.” In this world in extremis, the force of cyclones like Idai or Kenneth are likely to wield more devastation among millions of severely food insecure people already caught in climate chaos.
Two of the southern hemisphere’s deadliest cyclones in living memory, Idai and Kenneth displaced more than two million people between March and April. These unsparing disasters trashed 270,000 homes and left at least 1.2-million children in Comoros, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi needing aid.
Acknowledging the scale of this crisis in his own statement to September’s UN Climate Action Summit in New York, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of “extensive, ongoing research in South Africa” into “multiyear droughts that compromise water security” as well as “heat waves impacting on human health, livestock production and crop yield”.
Although no less devastating, none of this is surprising when one considers the game-changing findings of the IPCC Global Warming of 1.5°C report, in which southern Africa emerges as a climate hotspot. In real terms, this means the region is warming at about twice the global rate — double the 3°C surface temperature the planet is expected to reach within the century if business as usual persists. If 4°C is collapse, a business-as-usual 6°C surge for southern Africa is a fairly clear sign that children born today won’t exactly retire in the region by 2100.
But back here in good old 2019, said OCHA, parts of southern Africa have seen their “lowest rainfall since 1981; others have endured destruction [by] cyclones, pests and disease”. It adds a caveat of snowballing implications: the estimated nine million-plus severely food insecure southern Africans are “expected to grow to 12 million at the peak of the lean season”.
The lean months kicked off in October and will last until March 2020, overlapping with the annual tropical cyclone season — which gave us Idai and Kenneth — in the southwest Indian Ocean.
Lean season gets mean — epidemic-prone disease, dying livestock
Millions of people in the affected countries face crisis levels by March, the IPC warned.
The joint call said at least 560,000 people in Angola faced crisis levels. In Eswatini, it was 230,000; 430,000 in Lesotho; 915,000 in Madagascar; 1,125,000 in Malawi; 1,650,000 in Mozambique; 2,330,000 in Zambia; and 3,580,000 in Zimbabwe — bringing the total figure to some 11 million people facing desperation right now.
Nyang’wa explained that “some areas and communities in affected countries, for example in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, are classified as phase three (denoting food security and livelihoods crisis) and phase four (humanitarian emergency). People facing phase three are going to fall into phase four if adequate interventions don’t occur; the same for a phase four crisis spiralling into phase five, which is famine.”
Acute malnutrition has already placed rising numbers of children at risk in areas within Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Angola, said OCHA.
Prevalence of stunting in SADC countries. Source: JME data, May 2019 update.
However, addressing food insecurity is not just about saving millions of people, in their escalating numbers, from the unrelenting pangs of gnawing hunger, malnutrition or even starvation. It’s also about ensuring communities can produce and eat food that yields sufficient nutritional value.
Gina Ziervogel, research chair at UCT’s African Climate and Development Initiative, told Our Burning Planet that the “extreme flood and drought events that we have seen across many parts of the African continent are disturbing in terms of how they have disrupted people’s lives. In many cases, livelihoods and incomes have been destroyed, including those of small businesses, farmers and entrepreneurs. For some, this directly impacts food supply; for others, it indirectly impacts food access and availability. Climate and food are closely related, requiring us to keep a careful eye on how climatic change is impacting food and livelihood security.”
Even so, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi in the aftermath of Idai “have lost their lands, their farming tools and other productive assets. They rely on food aid to survive without being able to bounce back to pre-crisis levels,” Nyang’wa said. The cyclone hit “some areas where the previous drought occurred. Now a new lean season is making daily life harder. That’s without doubt an escalation.”
The regional situation has plummeted to such an extent that the agricultural sector has reaped only two favourable agricultural seasons since 2012, OCHA pointed out.
“Over the past decade the frequency of drought has increased: from one drought every (six/seven) years… now we’re seeing consecutive droughts and more erratic rainfall patterns where dry spells are followed by flash floods,” said Nyang’wa. “We are noting shifts in climatic patterns across the region — for example, a higher incidence in floods, and 2019’s Idai. This is an important factor to analyse for a region in which a significant percentage of the population relies on agro-based livelihoods.”
Disrupting schools and critical-health services, drought disasters have been declared in Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa.
Losses of more than R6-billion in livestock production during the parched conditions, Maverick Citizen’s Estelle Ellis reported last month, have pounded the Eastern Cape — and the record-breaking drought in various rural parts of the country are driving farmers to suicide, according to local reports.
Amid impotent crops and the lowest rainfall records in 35 years, at least 290,000 of the most vulnerable people in northern Namibia are also suffering from an acute food-security crisis, according to OCHA. Some 90,000 heads of livestock are reported to have perished as a result of the scorched conditions in the country. Crops have also failed in Zambia while poor crops in central Mozambique and southern Angola have produced disappointing harvests.
OCHA maintained that, if nothing was done to ameliorate the unfolding catastrophe, the impact of drought would “seriously erode the capacity of affected farming households and communities to produce in the 2019/20 season”.
“Community watering points for livestock and agriculture have dried up in many places. Pasture has been depleted, resulting in increased movement of livestock and people searching for water and grazing,” said OCHA. “Outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and other transboundary livestock diseases have increased.”
Cholera outbreaks have struck Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.
“The hepatitis E outbreak in Namibia, with a high mortality rate especially among pregnant women, and dengue fever in Mauritius and Tanzania, are also closely linked to flooding,” OCHA said.
In Zimbabwe, people are reeling between floods and dry spells, even as “stocks of essential medicines, diagnostics and supplies have been depleted due to foreign currency shortages”. Food and fuel prices have skyrocketed upwards of 500% this year alone.
Economic discontent, the agency noted, has triggered “protests that have been accompanied by reports of increased restriction on the exercise of freedom of expression, association and assembly”.
The impact of extreme weather on the continent isn’t limited to southern Africa.
“Drought has also hit the East and Horn of Africa particularly Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia,” said Oxfam. Adding insult to wastelands, “record-breaking temperatures in the Indian Ocean have dumped ultra-heavy rainfalls into Kenya and South Sudan… [which] has declared a state of emergency with more than 900,000 people hit by floods.”
Extreme coping: ‘Paying more for sex without a condom’
Southern Africa has one of the most significant rates of HIV transmission in the world.
Compounded by resource tensions and climate-driven mass migrations, the region’s food-security crisis stands to affect the most vulnerable in society through gender-based violence and intensified “risk of HIV transmission”.
“Extreme coping mechanisms during times of household stress, including transactional sex, are exacerbating the situation. Girls are particularly vulnerable to family separation,” OCHA said, also signalling rising school dropouts.
For children in Angola, the daily grind is a life-sapping slog — “accompanying their parents hundreds of miles in search of water and pasture for cattle and engaging in child labour”, it added.
“In Lesotho, there are reports of women and girls crossing into South Africa in search of jobs, some of whom are trafficked and sexually exploited… In Mozambique, after Idai, women engaging in transactional sex reported that men would pay more for sex without a condom.”
‘Invisible’ poverty of ‘middle-income’ countries
These figures are so eye-watering it may seem inconceivable, implausible even, to more affluent residents of the region’s big cities that millions of people are facing a food-security timebomb on their doorstep.
But blanket economic groupings may illuminate why urgent assistance is failing to reach those in need. These groupings may also explain, to some extent, why the basic human rights of people in poverty — food, housing and water — are not getting priority attention.
There has been “limited donor support for humanitarian response” in six out of nine southern African countries buckling under the climbing mercury’s whip. According to OCHA, that’s because the World Bank, a financial institution that gives loans, grants and credit to developing countries, presides over an annual list of economies that puts all people in such countries into a sliding scale of “middle-income” categories.
Of nine nations requiring crisis intervention, only Malawi, Madagascar and Mozambique are officially defined as “low-income” countries, according to these sweeping groupings.
Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Eswatini, Lesotho and Angola represent a mix of “upper-middle” (in Namibia’s case only) and “lower middle” income countries, according to this list. (For the current 2020 fiscal year, a low-income country has a GNI, or gross national income per capita, of $1,025 or less. A lower-middle-income country has a GNI per capita of up to $3,995. An upper middle-income country has a GNI per capita of up to $12,375; and a high-income country has a GNI per capita of $12,376 or more. South Africa’s GNI per capita stands at $5,750.)
“This label often masks extreme inequalities within the countries, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are bearing the brunt of rising food insecurity,” the agency explained.
For the millions steamrollered by growing inequality amid climate devastation, the cloak of invisibility, therefore, may be intensifying their struggle to survive.
Between 22 November and 3 December, Our Burning Planet sent multiple requests for interviews and comment to Marie Marie-Nelly, World Bank country director for South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana and Eswatini. Marie-Nelly, according to her profile on the World Bank website, was director of the World Bank Group Programme for the Chad Petroleum and Chad-Cameroon pipeline project from 2004 to 2007. She’s been with the institution since 1994. Her office initially did not respond to our e-mails.
After Our Burning Planet sent additional requests to nine of the institution’s spokespeople over this time, a 10th — a senior communications officer in the Pretoria office — replied on 4 December by e-mail. She asked that we attribute their response to “World Bank Spokesperson”.
“We would like to clarify that middle-income countries (MICs) are a diverse group by size, population and income level,” a World Bank spokesperson said. “Whatever their classification, the World Bank Group and other development financial institutions work with client countries to help them address their development needs. As the World Bank, we provide increasingly tailored services… and knowledge and advisory services (including on a reimbursable basis)… ”
The World Bank spokesperson also said it was talking with the government of drought-declared Lesotho to see how it could support its “emergency funding needs”. “Once approved”, something it called a “Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option” would “serve as a contingent line of credit” to strengthen Lesotho’s emergency response.
It went on to cite “specialised funding mechanisms that allow for emergency assistance before, during, and after crises, regardless of a country’s income level.”
For instance, it “mobilised over half a billion dollars” to help Idai-struck people in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
The World Bank spokesperson concluded that the institution would “continue to support the poorest people wherever they live, to respond to crises as they emerge, and to work with governments of all income levels to best serve the needs of their most vulnerable people. This is [in] line with the World Bank goals to reduce extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity.”
Some 40% of Zimbabwe’s rural population are expected to slide into “crisis or emergency” food insecurity by March 2020. Ask them how it feels to live in a “middle-income” country, and it’s possible they won’t return any eulogies about shared prosperity.
A choice no one wants to (or should have to) make
In a damning June report to the UN Human Rights Council, special rapporteur Philip Alston warned that the climate crisis threatened to derail “50 years of progress in development, global health and poverty reduction”. Millions faced malnutrition in the trenches of drought, his report acknowledged. Many more faced the unimaginable crossroads between starvation and migration.
“The poorest, who have contributed least to emissions and have the least capacity to react, will be the most harmed,” Alston said. Conversely, he pointed out, referring to Oxfam’s 2015 Extreme Carbon Inequality report, a person in the wealthiest 1% of the global population used, on average, 175 times more carbon than someone in the bottom 10%.
A hot topic on the Madrid agenda, the Paris Agreement’s “loss and damage” mechanism is meant to ensure the developed world pays for irreversible impacts in developing countries. At the time of publication, no agreement had been reached on this controversial proposal, meaning the developing world still gets to shoulder 75-80% of costs, according to Alston.
“People living in poverty are noticeably invisible, despite being prime victims,” he said.
Without the necessary action that millions of climate protesters have called for in their historical millions this year, climate breakdown could create 140 million refugees by 2050, Alston noted.
That’s 140 million climate refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America only.
Without immediate action, the climate crisis could propel 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 — “likely an underestimate, and rising in subsequent years,” Alston said.
‘Shock-responsive’ relief, or ‘sleepwalking to catastrophe’?
Poring over the minutiae won’t immediately feed southern Africa’s millions of food-insecure people living in poverty.
In their collaborative call, the organisations red-flagged several high-resolution emergency priorities.
These included “rolling out safety-net programmes in drought-affected areas; climate-resilient water-supply projects; and monitoring household water insecurity in high-risk locations.”
They also called for “establishing or rehabilitating community watering points; scaling up emergency food and nutrition assistance; providing appropriate seeds and other inputs to restore food production”, as well as supporting government response to delivering pulses, and moving maize to vulnerable districts in traditionally food-exporting countries.”
The organisations lauded governments across southern Africa for responding “quickly” to the emergency situation — “with several countries declaring states of emergency to trigger national response mechanisms”.
However, now that several countries had reached the limits of their natural resource availability, it was time to sound the clarion call.
An acute food-security reference for households. Angola, eSwatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe are severely food insecure, according to the IPC. That means they fall into phase three, but could likely slide into phases four or five without intervention. (IPC)
Alston threw down his own explicit gauntlet, this time clattering brazenly at the human rights’ community’s feet.
Not enough had been done to marry climate science and human rights, he insisted. He credited some partnerships between environment and human rights advocates. But if this work was to force governments to act, humanity needed “climate scientists to bring detail and precision into human rights legal standards”.
“Without it, the natural complacency of governmental elites and vested interests of financial elites will continue sleepwalking towards catastrophe,” he cautioned.
According to the IMF’s 2019 count, states sponsor the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $5.2-trillion per year.
By contrast, the FAO, Unicef and the WFP say they require $503.16-million to provide emergency assistance to millions of southern Africans in coming months.
That’s 0.01% compared with yearly fossil fuel patronage.
“We’re seeing people trying to cope with shifting seasons and erratic rainfall by finding new ways to make a living off-farm. Women are coming together to pool their resources through small internal lending communities, buying food together, growing sweet potatoes instead of maize — all without outside support,” Oxfam said. “Local people have the solutions, but what they lack is resources, especially funding.”