Previous El Niño events have resulted in losses of lives, harvests and livestock and outbreaks of hunger and disease
By Busani Bafana
NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With an El Niño event predicted to hit the Horn of Africa and the Sahel starting in December, potentially bringing worsening droughts and floods, researchers are recommending action now to avoid a food crisis.
Effective measure to cut risks might include better water management, planting a more diverse range of crops and sharing weather information, they said.
Forecasts by the U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released this month warn of an El Niño period starting in December and lasting into 2015 - a risk for the two fragile regions prone to extreme weather, experts say.
An El Niño event occurs when the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean warm, changing global rain patterns.
Recent El Niño events brought floods to the Horn of Africa in 1997-1998 and 2006-2007 and drought to the Sahel in 2012, resulting in losses of lives, harvests and livestock as well as infrastructure damage and outbreaks of hunger and disease.
"Scientists project that in the unlikely event the anticipated 2014 El Niño event behaves like the 2006 short rains, there will be increased risk of malaria and water-borne diseases in flood-prone areas," said Robert Mgendi, ecosystems adaptation officer with the U.N. Environment Programme's (UNEP) regional office of the Africa Climate Change Programme.
Scientists concerned about the emergence of a new El Niño are gearing up to tackle the threat of a food crisis in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, which together are home to more than 200 million people. Both regions are also heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture.
More than 300 experts from across Africa representing climate change, early warning and meteorological organisations aim to hammer out a plan to prepare for any El Niño-linked crisis at a workshop organised by UNEP in Kenya on Nov. 27-28.
DROUGHTS AND FLOODS
Extreme weather linked to climate change is already on the rise in Africa. The Sahel region experienced droughts in 2005, 2010 and 2012, and the response to the problem was criticised in most cases as slow and inadequate, said Benjamin Lamptey, deputy director-general of the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development.
The 2012 drought brought some improvement, however, with institutions at national, regional and international levels responding more effectively, Lamptey said. That year, the United Nations launched a $1.6 billion appeal for aid and received 70 percent of the funding needed to provide food assistance to more than 6 million people.
During the 1997-98 El Niño in the Horn of Africa, the emergency response to flooding included food aid, medical supplies, emergency water system chlorination, an intensified anti cholera campaign and air surveys of isolated communities in Kenya and Somalia, the most affected countries.
A 2013 UNEP report on African adaptation said projects to harvest and manage rainwater, and to improve the education and awareness of vulnerable communities about how to respond to disaster forecasts have since been implemented in some parts of Africa.
In addition, restoration of degraded lands through reforestation, diversification of food production, use of improved crop varieties and community efforts to find alternative economic activities have helped people cope with worsening crises, the report said.
Climate change adaptation efforts used in parts of Africa, such as planting new trees, and improving soil and water conservation, also could be used more widely in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, said Richard Munang, the coordinator of UNEP's Africa regional climate change programme.
"Emergency response has formed the bulk of responses to flooding and drought disasters across Africa and this reactive approach should be replaced by these robust proactive approaches," Munang said.
(Reporting by Busani Bafana; editing by Laurie Goering)
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