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Lessons of the southern Africa drought crisis

by Chris Nikoi | World Food Programme
Thursday, 6 April 2017 09:30 GMT

A Malawian man carries food aid distributed by the United Nations World Food Progamme (WFP) through maize fields in Mzumazi village near the capital Lilongwe, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Building resilience is everyone’s business: civil society, governments, donors and financial institutions

Severe drought and crop loss have taken their toll on southern Africa. In the worst-affected countries, millions of people still face hunger. While not yet over, however, the crisis is abating. Assessments in April will give a more accurate picture but, with above-average rainfall, it’s likely the May harvest will be better than in recent years.

Though the crisis in southern Africa was not driven by conflict, as in South Sudan - where famine was declared in February - and elsewhere, there are lessons to be learned.

The first indications that southern Africa was in for a tough time came with the reduced rains of the 2014-15 agricultural season. A poor harvest in May 2015 prompted the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) to warn the region was facing “its worst food security crisis in years”.

An intensifying El Nino during 2015 caused particular concern for a region with only one annual harvest and food production largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture.

As drought tightened its grip in late 2015, WFP began urging leading donors and international financial institutions to help scale up assistance to millions of vulnerable people, building on existing government social safety nets.

WFP responded using a range of programming – not just relief assistance in the annual lean season but also year-round programmes including school feeding, nutritional support for vulnerable groups, and asset-building schemes to help communities better withstand weather-related shocks.

In the worst-hit countries like Malawi, these programmes were scaled up from early 2016 to prevent ever more people falling into malnutrition. By then, southern Africa had recorded the lowest rainfall in 35 years and the hottest temperatures in a decade.

Calls for early warning and prompt humanitarian response were key. Here are some key events:

•    WFP’s publication in early 2016 of El Nino: Undermining Resilience which sounded the alarm bell about the potential magnitude of the crisis.

•    The convening in February 2016 by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) of member states, with the support of WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation

•    The establishment by SADC of a regional coordination cell, to which WFP and other UN agencies deployed experts

•    The publication in July 2016 by the RIASCO regional inter-agency grouping of its Action Plan for Southern Africa which identified the scale of the drought (32 million people food insecure with 18 million requiring urgent humanitarian assistance) and called for more than $1 billion in international aid to address immediate needs and build resilience

By mid-year, having declared its highest level of corporate emergency in the region in June 2016, WFP was scaling up, working with non-governmental organisations to provide food and cash-based assistance to millions of people in seven of the worst-hit countries. Underpinning this were assessments using the latest mobile technology to source data about food security and market prices.

In normal times, such a response would have been activated in only a few countries and much later in the lean season. After the disastrous harvest of 2016, however, millions of families were struggling as early as September.

Every month, WFP and its partners scaled up, reaching by early this year more than 10 million vulnerable people, using a whole range of programming.

That it has been able to do so is thanks to government leadership and donor support – and not just from international donors but also from drought-hit countries such as Malawi. From a slow start, WFP had managed to raise more than $500 million by the end of March 2017.

Without such a response, there is little doubt there would have been outbreaks of famine in southern Madagascar and possibly Malawi. Key were WFP’s own advanced funding mechanisms which allowed early response but, ultimately, it was the readiness of donors that really saved the day for southern Africa.

There are lessons to be learned about collective preparedness, early action, strategic partnerships and regional cooperation. But the most important one is about supporting governments in strengthening shock-responsive social nets for vulnerable populations. These involve linking social welfare support to mother-and-child nutrition programmes, setting up weather-indexed insurance schemes to protect smallholder farmers or helping communities provide water for their cattle so they don’t have to sell off vital assets in times of drought.

Making such systemic changes is a challenge not just for one organisation, or even just for the United Nations and the humanitarian community. Building resilience is everyone’s business: civil society, governments, donors and financial institutions.

Chris Nikoi is regional director for southern Africa at the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP)