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May 16, 2017

Is Climate Change to blame for the East African Drought?

May 16, 2017
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An honest attempt to engage with the evidence may seem almost quaint in these angry, post-truth times, but I was impressed by a recent Oxfam media

A young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children many of whom died of malnutrition. Dadaab refugee  camp.

A young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children many of whom died of malnutrition. Dadaab refugee camp.

briefing by Tracy Carty on the thorny topic of whether climate change is to blame for the current East African drought. It’s an excellent example of the balancing act advocacy organizations have to perform on attribution: start making sweeping statements about climate change being the cause and you lose credibility, but sit on your hands for fear of being caught out and you risk missing a chance to get the urgent message on climate change out to new audiences.

Here’s where the briefing comes down:

The situation: ‘Nearly thirteen million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are dangerously hungry and in need of humanitarian assistance. The worst drought-affected areas in Somalia are on the brink of famine. The crisis could deteriorate significantly over the coming weeks, as rainfall in March and early April was very low in places and poor rainfall is forecast for April through June, which is the end of the rainy season.’

East Africa climate changeThe link to climate change: ‘There is mounting evidence that climate change is likely to be contributing to higher temperatures in the region, and that increased temperatures are exacerbating the impacts of drought. Temperatures have been consistently higher in East Africa in recent years, part of a trend seen in Africa and around the world (see fig). Higher temperatures result in greater evaporation, meaning soil moisture is reduced, reinforcing drier conditions and intensifying the impacts of failed rains. Crops and pasture have less water, and the chance of failed harvests or lack of feed for livestock increases. In pastoral regions like northern Somalia, higher temperatures over the past six months have turned very low rainfall last year into a terrible loss of soil moisture – helping to desiccate all the available fodder for many of Somalia’s pastoralists.’

But the link between climate change and higher temperatures is much stronger than the link to lower rainfall, which is very unclear:

‘Temperatures are set to rise, but there is uncertainty on what long-term precipitation trends will be for the region. Most climate models, as set out in the IPCC’s last assessment, suggest the region will get wetter due to climate change. Yet, in what is known as the ‘East Africa Climate Paradox’ observed trends show the opposite happening (see fig).East Africa climate change 2

Even if ultimately the drying trend goes into reverse, East Africa faces higher temperatures and decades of disruptive climate change. The impact that temperature increases alone will have on agriculture and livestock are likely to be significant, regardless of rainfall changes.’

 

6 comments

  1. It is a brave blog that puts science and facts in front of the narrative. Thank you.

    “Global Warming” was renamed “Climate Change” because while the world as a whole is/will get warmer, different regions face different changes. If climate patterns change as wind belts move then some regions will get cooler or wetter – changes which in the very long term might be beneficial for life there, but for which the landscape, ecology and people are not adapted.

    Another factor is the effect of de-forestation on weather. A land covered in forests will heat up more slowly than one in which the trees are all gone. Flying over parts of Africa it is clear that there are now only small patches of protected forest in countries that are now largely de-forested. Even without the greenhouse gas effect, the land will now get hotter, the air above will heat up and rise faster than before leading to a greater force pulling in wind from elsewhere. Basically, this change in land cover will be causing it’s own change in regional weather.

  2. Thanks Duncan for publicising + praising Tracy’s briefing + blog. In achieving the balancing act you describe on attribution, an important asset (which touches on your recent blog about academic-NGO interactions + how they can work together) was the willingness of 2 top climate scientists + experts on attribution to contribute to the information + analysis, and review the drafts. One was Chris Funk of Santa Barbara University USA and FEWSNET – who has his own excellent Climate Hazards group blog series – and the other was Fredi Otto of Oxford University. The rainfall decline is primarily due to a drop in the ‘long rains’, which Chris has done a lot of work to explain – to do with warming sea surface temperatures leading to more rainfall over Indonesia archipelago which robs East Africa of the moisture that would otherwise be transported there. It might also be of interest to know that these trends have been very accurately observed and reported by farmers in the region -e.g. they were saying these things to me in Uganda back in 2008. That evidence from Oxfam’s programmes enabled us to have more confidence in what we were saying in the briefing so I would also take the lesson that ‘citizen science’ also has validity and should be taken seriously.

    1. Thank you for mentioning the Climate Hazards group blog. (It’s the sort of scientific info that I like.) If droughts in East Africa are directly linked to warming in the Pacific that’s pretty bad news.

  3. I first moved to the region 13 year ago, and if you ask anyone from East Africa about the weather, nearly everyone has the impression that the old weather patterns no longer exist – the rainy seasons often don’t arrive, or if they do, not with the same intensity. But then you may be get sudden floods at times of the year when rain is just not expected. Obviously this is all terribly disruptive to farming activities. And it’s impact goes beyond the cited Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. Uganda has suffered a quite serious drought recently, and so has Rwanda. There are very few countries in the region that are untouched by this phenomenon. So the conclusions cited above ring alarmingly true: “Even if ultimately the drying trend goes into reverse, East Africa faces higher temperatures and decades of disruptive climate change. The impact that temperature increases alone will have on agriculture and livestock are likely to be significant, regardless of rainfall changes.”

  4. Its great to see extreme weather event attribution science being shared in such a clear way in this report from Tracey. The studies presented in Tracy Carty’s media briefing provide useful tools for policy makers – tools to understand ‘what is the new normal’, and where adaptation action is needed most. At CDKN we have been partnering with a number of organisations to increase the application and effective communication of attribution science in East Africa and South Asia. Getting policy makers, media and others to provide a balanced explanation of impact of climate change on extreme events and human suffering drawing on this emerging science is a substantial task The CDKN led Raising Risk Awareness project has been working towards over the last year, with some very effective engagement from stakeholders in East Africa and South Asia. There is a set of material on this at http://www.cdkn.org/climaterisk

  5. Its great to see extreme weather event attribution science being shared in such a clear way in this report from Tracy. The studies presented in the media briefing provide useful tools for policy makers – tools to understand ‘what is the new normal’, and where adaptation action is needed most. At CDKN we have been partnering with a number of organisations to increase the application and effective communication of attribution science in East Africa and South Asia. Getting policy makers, media and others to provide a balanced explanation of the impacts of climate change on extreme events and human suffering, drawing on this emerging science is a substantial task The CDKN led Raising Risk Awareness project has been working towards this over the past year, with some very effective engagement from stakeholders in East Africa and South Asia. There is a set of material on this at http://www.cdkn.org/climaterisk

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