THE El Niño-induced drought, expected to cause economic contraction and widespread food shortages, is likely to pile misery on Zimbabweans, the bulk of whom are living from hand to mouth due to protracted hardships.
Citizens have been battling economic difficulties aggravated by chronic high inflation, currency volatility as well as company closures and job losses.
Presenting the 2024 National Budget last month, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube expressed fears that an El Niño-induced economic contraction is looming amid drier climatic and weather conditions — drought — that will envelop six countries in the region, including Zimbabwe.
Already, in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Eswatini and Zambia, the planting season has been delayed by two months or more, severely impacting on potential production yields, food security, economic growth and inflation, among other issues.
Presenting his ZW$58.2 trillion budget to Parliament, Ncube said: “The domestic economy is now projected to grow by 5.5% in 2023, a slight upward revision from the August projection of 5.3%, on account of better-than-expected output in agriculture, in particular tobacco, wheat and cotton.
“However, economic growth is expected to slow down to 3.5% in 2024, mainly owing to the anticipated impact of the El Niño phenomenon being forecasted for the 2023/24 summer cropping season on agricultural output, as well as declining mineral commodity prices attributable to the global economic slowdown.”
Extreme weather conditions caused by El Niño and La Niña affect infrastructure, food and energy systems around the world. For instance, when less cold water comes to the surface off the west coast of South America during El Niño events, fewer nutrients rise from the bottom of the ocean.
That means there is less food available for marine species like squid and salmon, in turn reducing stocks for South American fishing communities and causing inflation on those commodities.
Droughts and flooding caused by the extreme 2015-16 El Niño event affected the food security of more than 60 million people, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
A recent study suggests El Niño significantly reduces global economic growth, an effect which could intensify in future. Zimbabwe is likely to experience a drought in the 2023/24 cropping season due to El Niño climate phenomenon that threatens to slow down the country’s economic growth projections, trigger higher food prices and stoke much-dreaded inflation.
The World Meteorological Organisation has declared the advent of the devastating climate phenomenon, warning its return would lead to rising global temperatures and extreme weather conditions in July.
The United Nations weather agency has estimated 90% probability of El Niño persisting through the second half of the year and it is expected to be of “at least moderate strength”.
A case study on Zimbabwe by Hillary Muguyo, Tamuka Magadzire and Dennis Junior Choruma from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as Vimbai Chimomyo of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre assesses the potential effects of El Niño on southern Africa.
It offers potential adaptation and mitigation measures for farmers to prepare for the looming El Niño-influenced drought and the future.
To reduce climate and weather hazards connected with El Niño, the brief report suggests anticipatory action methods be applied in southern Africa, using Zimbabwe as a case study.
It also suggests strategic, tactical and operational decision-making that the agricultural sector must adopt to protect farmers’ livelihoods and enhance drought readiness.
The research emphasises the significance of providing farmers with knowledge and advice regarding drought and heat stress, including cultivating crop varieties and livestock and sufficient fire safety precautions.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says the El Niño occurance will ravage Zimbabwe and the region between October 2023 and March 2024. It is expected to have adverse effects on rainfall from October 2023 to March 2024, leading to drought conditions in Zimbabwe.
Apart from southern Africa, it will also affect other nations. El Niño (which means “little boy” in Spanish) and La Niña (little girl) are two opposing climate patterns that break these normal conditions. Scientists call these phenomena the El Niño-Southern Oscillation Cycle.
El Niño and La Niña can both have global impacts on weather, wildfires, ecosystems, and economies.
Episodes of El Niño and La Niña typically last nine to 12 months, but can sometimes last years.
El Niño and La Niña events occur every two to seven years, on average, but they do not occur regularly. Generally, El Niño occurs more frequently than La Niña.
Swiss-based Assessment Capabilities Project (ACAPS), established in 2009 as a non-governmental project to conduct independent, ground-breaking humanitarian analysis to help humanitarian workers, influencers, fundraisers, and donors make better-informed decisions, says: “Zimbabwe is a country that requires close monitoring and where the effects of El Niño may lead to negative outcomes or generate humanitarian needs.
“Forecast models anticipate the possibility of below-average rainfall towards the end of 2023, particularly in the central and southern regions. Such forecasts would affect the region’s planting seasons, increasing the possibility of hardened drought conditions and affecting the country’s crop production, livestock and food security.”
This evokes previous El Niño disasters in Zimbabwe. In 2015-2016, an El Niño drought devastated most of Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe has, over the years, grappled with the repercussions of the climate crisis, which have led to erratic rainfall patterns characterised by either severe floods or prolonged periods of drought.
The country has experienced a trend of numerous regions reporting below-normal rainfall levels during what should be “normal” years. The looming El Niño is poised to exacerbate this predicament. It is expected to intensify aridity, significantly impacting food and animal production across many areas, including those typically classified as “dry regions”.
The El Niño phenomenon of 2015-2016 stands as a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of the phenomenon.
During that period, the country endured extreme dry spells and significantly reduced rainfall, severely affecting agricultural output and leading to adverse food and nutritional shortages. At least 2.8 million people were exposed to food insecurity.
Consequently, a state of drought disaster was declared on 4 February 2016, prompting a humanitarian appeal for US$1.5 billion to address urgent needs in food, nutrition, agriculture, water, education, and health sectors.
The consequences extended beyond these sectors, affecting urban areas as well. Cities, municipalities, and other urban settlements had to endure prolonged water rationing schedules due to reduced water levels.
Additionally, electricity generation at the country’s hydroelectric power plants was significantly hampered.
The ripple effects of the El Niño-induced drought permeated various sectors of the economy, with adverse impacts on manufacturing and energy industries.
Nonetheless, the most severely affected sectors remained food and nutrition, agriculture, water, education, health, and wildlife.
Anticipated outcomes of El Niño include a delayed onset of rainfall and prolonged dry spells, which could significantly impact food production and disrupt the food supply chain.
Regions with typically lower precipitation levels are particularly susceptible to drought, which may result in widespread crop loss, livestock fatalities, increased disease incidence, crop pests, and challenges related to water, sanitation, and hygiene (Wash).
These challenges, in turn, can have cascading negative effects on nutrition. According to forecasts from Zimbabwe’s Meteorological Services Department, El Niño is expected to be most strongly felt in the southern parts of the country, spanning west to east.
These areas, which also experienced high levels of food insecurity during the 2015/16 El Niño episode, include Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South, Midlands, Masvingo, and Manicaland. — STAFF WRITER.