Southern Africa is facing an unprecedented climate change crisis which threatens to expose an estimated 45 million people in 18 countries across the region to severe food shortages within the next 6 months. Southern Africa is experiencing its worst drought in 35 years. The implications of this are not just an impending disaster set for an uncomfortably near future; the impact is already being felt at an environmental, economic and political level. The amalgamation of these factors has the potential to trigger instability across the Southern African region as a whole.
The U.N. predicts a 3.2 – 3.9ºC rise in global temperature in this century, which would bring wide-ranging and destructive climate impacts. Despite the stark warnings for the environment the UN Climate Change Conference COP25, held between 2-13 December 2019 in Madrid, failed to reach consensus in many areas. The lack of a meaningful outcome for the latest climate talks may not lead to immediate tangible environmental consequences for countries that are predominantly in the global north on a scale and frequency comparable to countries in the global south. This disparity is compounded by the El Niño phenomenon which has resulted in several countries in Southern Africa experiencing ongoing drought spells and extreme weather since 2015. The continuation of what was once a phenomenon experienced every few years in the region has meant that the largely economically and ecologically vulnerable countries in Southern Africa have increasingly fewer resources to offset the effects, triggering instability across the region.
Botswana, for example, is experiencing its worst drought in a decade which has wiped out entire harvests and left the land littered with dead livestock. As a result of frequent droughts, President Mokgweetsi Masisi has said the government plans to stop calling it an emergency and instead make drought relief part of the national budget. In Malawi, the government has had to make plans to import maize to ensure there are adequate quantities in the country, while in South Africa there have been reports of farmer suicides.
In financial terms Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Madagascar and Namibia together suffered average annual losses of $700 million as a result of climate-related disasters. The frequency of these unpredictable climate- related disasters suggests that Southern Africa will have to factor this into its constrained national budgets as a recurrent and expected event rather than a one -time emergency experienced every few years. The reality of climate change and its devastating effects can be considered the new normal for this region.
As of 12 November 2019, it was reported that at least 1.6 million people in Mozambique are in need of assistance due to the devastating effects of the ongoing drought and increasingly severe weather effects. Mozambique has been hit particularly hard as the country is still recovering from two major cyclones, Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which hit the country earlier this year. For a country that signed a peace accord in August 2019 after years of instability and violence and is currently facing an Islamist insurgency in the North-east, this climate crisis could not have occurred at a less opportune moment.
Similarly, in neighbouring Zimbabwe, there are an estimated 7.7 million people that are facing food insecurity where it is reported that almost $300 million was urgently needed to supply some 240,000 tonnes of aid. The country is described to be ‘on the brink of man-made starvation’ with hyperinflation, poverty, natural disasters and economic sanctions identified as some of the causes. Zimbabwe has been in the throes of sustained political and economic instability for over two decades, with a period in 2008 where the country experienced a near total collapse. Currently there are fears that it could be returning to the abyss, two years after the coup that deposed of former President Mugabe, and the added climate crisis could be what expedites the return of critical uncertainty in Zimbabwe.. The added climate crisis which has resulted in the lowest rainfall for Zimbabwe since 1981 has not only impacted humans but also wildlife where at least 200 elephants were reported to have died as a result of the drought. In a bid to save the remaining wildlife a migration of the animals by ZimParks and private partners has been planned.
The immediate picture for Southern Africa looks bleak due to the toxic combination of prevalent national and regional issues that are being compounded by its climate crisis. While the level of impact among individual countries in the region may differ slightly based a number of external contributory factors unique to said country, the reality is that Southern Africa’s drought is borderless in its staggering devastation. Increased inter-regional collaboration particularly with relation to mitigating the impact climate change is having on wildlife is a typical example of how the region must do more together in order to maintain regional stability. Climate change has in indeed come early for Southern Africa.