Horn of Africa Drought: is it climate change?

By Bryan Walker 12/08/2011

The horrifying pictures of famine in the Horn of Africa haunt us as human tragedy, and the more because they carry with them the question of whether this has something to do with climate change. Are we going to see more and more of this kind of suffering as climate change impacts begin to mount? That’s an easier question to muse than to answer with certitude, but it deserves our attention. There is every indication that poor people are going to suffer from the impacts of climate change sooner and more harshly than the rest of us. But is the Horn of Africa famine part of that?

Oxfam has been addressing that question, and recently issued a briefing on the subject. The short answer is that we don’t know.

There are what may be indications:

’Reports from the Kenya Food Security Group and from pastoralist communities show that drought-related shocks used to occur every ten years, and they are now occurring every five years or less. Borana communities in Ethiopia report that whereas droughts were recorded every 6-8 years in the past, they now occur every 1-2 years.’

Meteorological data shows mean annual temperatures from 1960-2006 increased by 1 degree in Kenya and 1.3 degrees in Ethiopia, and the frequency of hot days is increasing in both countries.

Rainfall trends are less clear, though recent research suggests that rainfall decreased from 1980 to 2009 during the ‘long rains’ (March to June).

But no conclusion can be drawn:

’[Globally] there are so far only a few cases in which scientists have been able to estimate the extent to which man-made climate change has made a particular extreme weather event more likely, and no such studies as yet exist in the case of the current drought in the Horn of Africa.’

However, the current drought has highlighted the vulnerability of the communities to changes in the climate, as Oxfam on the ground in the refugee camps is only too aware.  Last night I watched on Campbell Live an interview with a New Zealand woman Janna Hamilton working for Oxfam at the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border. Vulnerability sounds like a euphemism alongside what some of the people she described had been through.

So whatever part human-caused climate change may or may not have played in the current drought there can be no doubt that what the future holds for the populations in the Horn of Africa is deeply concerning. Higher temperatures are certain and in the absence of urgent action to slash global emissions they will likely be 3 to 4 degrees higher in the region in 2080-2099 relative to 1980-99. Rainfall patterns are more difficult to predict. Some models suggest more rain for East Africa, others that it will decrease. The briefing notes however that even if rainfall does increase, this will in part be offset by temperature rises which cause greater evapotranspiration, and more rain falling in heavy events will result in increased surface runoff and flooding.

This adds up to major problems for food production and availability — one recent estimate published by The Royal Society suggests much of East Africa could suffer a decline in the length of the growing period for key crops of up to 20 per cent by the end of the century, with the productivity of beans falling by nearly 50 per cent.

In other words, whether the current drought is down to climate change or not, it reminds us that these populations are going to be profoundly affected in the future as climate change begins to bite.

And so the briefing sounds again Oxfam’s oft-repeated recommendations for international action to slash greenhouse gas emissions to a level which keeps global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, for action on mobilising the $100 billion per year that has been committed for climate action in developing countries, and for a dramatic increase in long-term investment towards building the resilience and boosting the productivity of pastoralists and smallholder food producers in the Horn of Africa.

Improved governance has a part to play, as the briefing fully acknowledges: ’It should be noted that whilst the current drought has been caused by lack of rainfall, the disaster is man-made.’ But it would be wrong to shrug off the climate challenges ahead as if they were simply down to inadequate government. We owe the world’s poor, and eventually our own children, the earnest effort Oxfam keeps calling for and that we keep delaying.