Horn of Africa Drought: is it climate change?

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.

8 thoughts on “Horn of Africa Drought: is it climate change?”

  1. “the disaster is man-made”

    That pompous attitude sure is tedious. Better governance in the USA is not stopping the massive crop loss there due to the current exceptional drought. Texas and Oklahoma are in dire need of rain.

    Given that global dimming (sulfate aerosols from fossil fuel pollution) is strongly implicated in the Sahelian droughts of the 70’s and 80’s. It is entirely possible that the increased pollution from East Asia in the last decade, may be responsible for the current drought.


  2. There are no marker threads in any weather event that say ‘this event was caused by global warming’ but the relentless warming effect of 391 ppm of CO2 are showing up all over the World. In 50 years time, when farming has collapsed in Texas, people will look back and say ‘surely it was obvious what was going to happen’.
    The massive burning of coal in Europe did cause the temperature to drop and disrupt the monsoon in the Horn of Africa. They switched to gas and cleaned the air and the rains returned.
    Unfortunately we did not stop producing CO2 and this is causing a World wide event that is going to effect us all. Even beautiful and bountiful New Zealand.

  3. That pompous attitude sure is tedious.
    Can you explain what is pompous about it? The drought in Texas is horribly bad, but on the whole, there are not tens of thousands of people dying of starvation and disease as a result. This is not unrelated to superior US governance (and a much wealthier economy) that means that food and water can be reliably brought to places that are short without (on the whole) being siphoned off by corrupt officials, or getting stuck on poorly maintained roads – and so on. The causes of the difference between Texas and the horn of Africa are incredibly complex, and the role of western corporations in maintaining corrupt governments ought not be underestimated. I am in no way implying that the Texans ought to feel too smug about themselves when they look at Africa, simply pointing out that this disaster has many human roots (and climate may well be one of them). This is actually one of the difficult notions concerning climate change communication: most of the difficulties associated with climate change are exacerbations of existing problems. They cannot simply be labelled “climate disasters”, but they are human disasters exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change.

  4. “Can you explain what is pompous about it?”

    Sure, why even bring it up in the discussion? This is just a variation of ‘they bought it on themselves’.

    “The drought in Texas is horribly bad, but on the whole, there are not tens of thousands of people dying of starvation and disease as a result’

    Not yet, but fast-forward a decade or so and things will be much, much worse. We know this because the paleohistory of the southern US clearly shows megdroughts are the norm for the area. The 20th century was the exception. Add a degree or two of warming into the equation and there is the potential for the southern US to be every bit as stuffed as the Horn of Africa. Indeed climate models predict a dire future for the Southern US.

    Maybe the ‘technology fairy’ will ride in to the rescue, but probably not, the US will have it’s hands full dealing with one climate disaster after the other. And they will have problems trying to feed themselves. Like other countries they’ll look back at today at the ‘Golden Age’, and they’ll shake their heads in disbelief at how people today could have been so stupid when the science was clear, and the warning signs so obvious.

    Of course when it all goes ‘tits up’ in the USA, some knob some where will say or write that the disaster was man-made. Which is helpful how exactly?

    1. Yep, we live at a time where margins of food safety have been eroded from several sides: Growing population = growing demand versus dwindling Ocean catch, flood and drought harvest related failures, serious looming water shortages in many key production areas etc…
      We are as a world one bad harvest from disaster.


      With no cushion to fall back on and worsening of the situation due to intensifying of droughts and water shortages or flooding can quickly tip the balance towards dramatic consequences.

    2. I don’t dispute your predictions (except perhaps on timing – I don’t think the US is going to cease to be self-sufficient in food within the next 10 years based on climate alone).

      the disaster was man-made. Which is helpful how exactly?
      It is helpful because it will be true. Not only is the climate increasingly shaped by anthropogenic forces, but the disasters that result are rarely purely climatic. They are a combination of climate and other social factors. It is when climate change exacerbates existing problems (poverty, oppression, waste, alienation, tyranny, insurrection, geopolitical tensions, and so on) that we really hit deep trouble. And this is not to minimise the dangers from climate change, quite the opposite! It is to say that the worst things about climate change will not be climate changing, but will likely be the deterioration of already bad situations into much worse ones. If India and Pakistan start a nuclear war over water shortages (or India and China) exacerbated by climate change, the problem won’t just be water stress in densely populated areas.

      And this is why in addressing climate change we also have to address the problems that a changing climate will exacerbate, including the structural causes of poverty that turn a drought into a famine.

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