Drought in East Africa: Is It Due To Climate Change?

Carol Thiessen asks some hard questions


he images of starving children in East Africa over the last few months got a lot of people talking about what’s causing the drought. Is it just normal climate variability? Is it a particularly nasty La Niña year? Or could it be linked to climate change?

The answer is we don’t know. Most reports are linking the drought and famine to La Niña, a natural weather event linked to cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean that can significantly affect global weather. The science on how climate change impacts La Niña is still unclear.

But even if we can’t say for sure what’s caused consecutive failed rainy seasons in the horn of Africa, one thing is clear:  Extreme weather is becoming increasingly common around the world. Whether it’s the deluges of rain on the Canadian prairies this spring, or the worst floods in 50 years currently devastating Thailand, or unprecedented heat waves in Russia last summer, something strange is happening.

The cost is high. Over six million acres of prairie farmland went unseeded in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta due to flooding in 2011. In the U.S., the National Weather Service announced that by the end of August the country had already experienced nine weather disasters with losses of at least $1 billion this year. This tied the record set in 2008—with four months left to go before year end.

While it is difficult to attribute climate change to any one event, we do know these events fit the climate change pattern. Said Sir John Beddington, the United Kingdom government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, about the East Africa famine: “Worldwide, events like this have a higher probability of occurring as a result of climate change.”

Whether or not the drought in East Africa can be attributed to climate change, at Canadian Foodgrains Bank we know that our partners in other countries are becoming increasingly concerned about drought. In a  recent survey of 40 agricultural projects in Africa that receive funding from the Foodgrains Bank, drought or excess rain was mentioned as a leading cause of hunger in almost 90 percent of the projects, with most of the concern centred on drought.

We also know that those who are most vulnerable to droughts and other extreme weather events are those who are already living on the edge of hunger. Many of these are smallholder farmers or pastoralists—people whose livelihoods depend almost entirely on the weather.

Canadians are responding to the needs of people still suffering from drought in East Africa by donating money—something that we, and other aid groups, are extremely grateful for. But another way to help would be to think about whether climate change might be putting these people at risk now, and in the future.

A group of saint ben’s folks will be doing just that on Wednesday November 9. We’ll hold an informal conversation around the impacts of climate change on global hunger, and we’ll invite people to write letters to their MPs encouraging action that will benefit those most vulnerable to climate change.  All are welcome at the home of Emily Cain and Tim Klaas for wine, conversation, and letter writing. To get the address or for more info, simply contact us.

For more information on how Foodgrains is responding, just click here. To listen to Carol Thiessen’s podcast on climate change and refugee issues by clicking here.

Carol Thiessen is a public policy advisor at Canadian Foodgrains Bank and regularly attends saint benedict’s table.

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