Our Perspectives

El Nino happens every 3-7 years. How can Africa be better prepared?


A farmer in The Gambia shows a dry tuft of rice in a drought period. Photo: FAO

Some 60 million people’s lives have been affected by the 2015-2016 El Niño phenomenon in the Horn and Southern Africa. It was the strongest El Niño since 1950.

Severe droughts have led to crop failure and food insecurity, massive livestock and wildlife deaths and loss of livelihoods.

Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have all declared drought emergencies. In South Africa, only one province, Gauteng, has been spared the emergency.  

A total of 40 million people, or 22 percent of Southern Africa’s rural population, became food insecure. About 23 million of them needed immediate humanitarian assistance at a cost of US$2.7 billion.

In the Horn of Africa, close to 24 million people were facing critical and emergency food insecurity levels as of June 2016. Ethiopia is the most severely impacted by the drought with about 10.2 million people in need of food assistance and emergency funding requirements of US$1.4 billion.

The 2015-2016 El Nino was predicted and early warning data made available in most countries, yet little action was taken, exposing both a lack of political will and a resilience deficit.  Only half of the affected countries have updated disaster risk reduction contingency plans, while the rest have outdated plans or none at all, and many do not have resilience strategies.

El-Nino is a climatic natural phenomenon that occurs every five to seven years, and while we cannot control it, we can prevent the damage to lives and livelihoods by considering the following seven-point agenda for longer-term resilience and securing sustainable development:

  • Address chronic food insecurity: Investments are needed in four drivers of change - greater agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers; more effective nutrition policies, especially for children; greater community and household resilience to cope with shocks; and wider popular participation and empowerment, especially of women and the rural poor.

  • Early warning systems: Locally understandable information on early warning/early action and preparedness are especially needed to protect lives and livelihoods and minimize potential impacts of disasters when they occur.

  • Decentralized resilience building and early recovery: This means strengthening local government and institutionalizing resilience, particularly in mapping hazards and risks, vulnerability, preparedness and response. Focusing on building back better, for instance, through exploring alternative and more resilient livelihoods.

  • Flexible and multi-year funding: We need more support for programmes that combine development and emergency relief and preparedness initiatives, and address underlying causes of vulnerability before the onset of El Niño / La Niña and other shocks.

  • Partnerships: Working with private sector actors committed to disaster risk reduction can steer public demand towards materials, systems and technological solutions to build and run resilient communities.

  • Align social protection services: Measures like labour market programmes and cash transfer schemes should be closely aligned with resilience objectives to more effectively help vulnerable households adapt to climate change, prepare for disasters and restore livelihoods quickly.

  • Simple affordable solutions: Actions such as deep well construction and rain water harvesting for small scale irrigation and livestock watering can make agriculture more resilient. Applying climate-smart technologies such as drought-tolerant crops and varieties could also serve as buffers to shocks.

Finally, crosscutting areas that must be integrated into this agenda include women’s empowerment and partnerships among different response actors. Without the above investments, we cannot break the cycle and risk further loss of life and economic progress.

Climate change and disaster risk reduction Climate change Africa Preparedness Blog post Excellent Hachileka Disaster risk management

UNDP Around the world