TThe African continent is no stranger to famine. In the 1970s and 1980s, countries in the Sahel plunged into a drought-induced food crisis. In the mid-1980s, an estimated one million people died from food shortages in Ethiopia. Somalia faced widespread famine in the 1990s. Both countries, along with neighboring East African countries, have suffered from persistent food insecurity in the 21st century, with 22 million people currently at risk of starvation.
Climate change has not been the cause of regional famines on the continent. Ten years after decade, hunger crises have resulted from a well-known set of circumstances: poor agricultural conditions – including inclement weather, insect infestations or land use misuse – mixed with geopolitical instability. But climate change is not entirely harmless either. Like an earthquake that just won’t stop, climate change breaks foundations that are already weak, making it more difficult to repair and strengthen as the ground shakes constantly.
That’s why food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa will increase unless policies are put in place to mitigate the effects of climate change, warns a study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published Sept. 15. The report explains that climate change could exacerbate weather conditions that hamper agriculture. When domestic agriculture is unreliable, countries face a whole host of knock-on effects, such as migration to cities and increased reliance on imports, each of which brings its own set of challenges that are also complicated by climate change.
“Right now in East Africa we have the worst drought in recent history, and then there are floods in West Africa, especially in Chad,” said Pritha Mitra, an IMF economist who co-authored the paper. . “The majority of sub-Saharan Africans are farmers, fishermen and herders, so they depend on agriculture, but they don’t have much infrastructure to help them deal with the climate shock.”
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In Ethiopia, a country that has seen a steady wave of famines over the centuries, food insecurity increases by 23 percentage points with each drought or flood, according to the IMF. Similar bumps exist for countries like Malawi (18 percentage points), Niger (17) and Mali (11). As climate change makes droughts and floods more frequent, longer or more severe, the resulting food shortages are also likely to become more frequent, longer and more severe, she says. Then, “if climate change affects crops or fish and they don’t have enough food to feed themselves, then they have to import their food.”
As the chart below shows, sub-Saharan countries fall below the global median rank for food security – a measure responsible for the availability, affordability and quality of food. Many of those countries, especially those on the right side of the chart, rely heavily on food imports. Those in the middle of the chart (close to the zero line) depend on imports for half of their food.
However, food imports are not always reliable. Recall that East African countries, including Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, are experiencing their third drought in the past decade. Oxfam and Save the Children estimates that the current drought has been so extreme that it has created a torturous famine, killing one person every 48 seconds. The situation has been exacerbated by sporadic and unaffordable food imports from Ukraine and Russia, both major trading partners. Between the Russo-Ukrainian war and global inflation, the price of wheat in Africa rose by more than 45% after the war broke out, the African Development Bank noted in May.
Climate change can also hamper global food import supply chains, the IMF report notes, especially if bad weather patterns cause agricultural problems in other parts of the world. Brazil, for example, is a top food trade partner with sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank, but that country’s crops have been dulled by several years of below-average rainfall.
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Moreover, adequate food production is only worthwhile if it can be distributed. And again, climate change is exposing existing vulnerabilities along roads, bridges, train tracks and ports — critical systems that allow bumper crops to be harvested in one country to reach less food-secure neighbors. Many sub-Saharan countries lack resilient transportation infrastructure, making systems more susceptible to damage in severe weather. According to a 2018 report by the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium, led by the University of Oxford, it is estimated that Tanzania, a $62 billion GDP country, loses as much as $1.4 million each day from flood-related transit disruptions. This is important for a country with chronic rail washouts.
Climate change can also amplify migration trends, creating a vicious circle of declining domestic food production and increasing dependence on imports. As the chart below shows, almost every country in sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a population shift from rural to urban areas. These trends could accelerate if farmers have no choice but to sell their land and give up their livelihoods to pay for food. A shrinking agricultural workforce means that in bad times, countries could face even sharper declines in domestic food production and labor shortages, even as farming conditions improve.
“They move to the city because they have to eat. It’s very basic,” says Mitra. “Then there’s the problem of rapid urbanization and all the extra pressure it puts on infrastructure and the need to import even more food.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the African Development Bank has launched several initiatives to support agriculture, including providing resilient seeds and fertilizers to farmers in seven countries. But the IMF report points out that these efforts don’t always deliver as much crop yield as intended and that the entire agricultural system needs to be more resilient to climate change – from improved drainage, irrigation and food storage to stronger distribution infrastructure.
These upgrades need to be deployed urgently in vulnerable regions to prevent younger generations from suffering the long-term effects of food insecurity, including stunted growth, ill health and even difficulty attending school, Mitra says. “The problem of climate change is constant and getting worse every year. And every year more and more people go hungry in Africa. Not only does it affect life and livelihoods today, but it will for many years to come.”
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