South Africa's drought: a preview of what is to come

Intense drought has left tens of millions of people in Southern Africa in need of food aid over the past year. The drought is the worst to hit the region in at least 35 years and the problem could actually get worse before it gets better. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) warns that without the means to produce enough food to feed themselves, 40 million people in Southern Africa will be struggling with some level of food insecurity by early 2017.

Unfortunately, this situation could become a preview of things to come across sub-Saharan Africa.

The build-up of greenhouse gases caused by human activity is altering weather patterns around the world. But Africa may be hit especially hard. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that a failure to limit greenhouse emissions today could cause global temperatures to increase by 2.6 to 4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. In much of Africa, the IPCC fears that temperatures will climb even faster, rising by at least 2 degrees by 2050, with the region’s arid zones especially feeling the additional heat. IPCC experts also worry that if emissions continue to rise, average rainfall will steadily decline in Southern Africa. They further warn that weather extremes - heat, drought, and flooding - all could become more common across the continent.

Weather extremes hit African farmers particularly hard because they already face a daunting array of challenges. Their existing vulnerabilities include a lack improved crop varieties, severely depleted soils, poorly defined land rights, a reliance on rain instead of irrigation (only about six percent of African agricultural lands are irrigated), and insufficient access to financing, safe crop storage, markets, extension services and crop insurance.

Unless farmers can adapt to shifting growing conditions, experts warn that yields for all major African food crops will sharply decline. A 2015 report from the Montpellier Panel found that by 2050, the average yield of maize, sorghum, millet, groundnut and cassava will decline by 22%, 17%, 17%, 18% and 8% respectively. Some areas could see even sharper declines.

Several countries could see overall crop yields fall by 50%. In addition, rising temperatures are expected to drive an expansion of pests and crop diseases while stressing livestock.

At the same time, lower productivity would cause food prices to rise. 

Rising sea levels caused by melting glaciers could inundate African coastal areas, ruining soils with salt water, contaminating groundwater and forcing large-scale population movements as predominantly agrarian communities seek out new farmlands.

Fighting back: how African farmers can survive and even thrive

Africans farmers are not powerless in the face of climate change. There are many ways in which they can survive and even thrive despite the dramatic shifts in growing conditions they are likely to endure.

Africans can invest in developing and adopting new agricultural innovations - from improved seeds to new ways of connecting to markets - with the zeal they have displayed for innovating and adopting mobile telephone technology. For example, more funding for crop breeders would enable them to take new varieties of drought-tolerant maize and heat-tolerant beans and develop seeds that match local growing conditions across the region.

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