Famine and climate change – what's the link?

An edited version of this post was published on the Guardian development site today

So is famine in the Horn of Africa linked to climate change or not? The same question arises whenever ‘extreme weather events’ – hurricanes, floods or droughts – hit the TV screens, and it is impossible to answer with a simple yes/no, but here’s what we think we know so far (based on a new Oxfam background briefing).

The current drought conditions have been caused by successive seasons with very low rainfall. Over the past year, the eastern Horn of animal-skeleton-drought-ethiopiaAfrica has experienced two consecutive failed rainy seasons. According to surveys of local communities, this is part of a long term shift. 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 back up the picture on temperatures: mean annual temperatures increased from 1960-2006 by 1.0°C in Kenya and 1.3°C in Ethiopia, and the frequency of hot days is increasing in both countries. Rainfall trends are less clear: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4), there are no statistically significant trends in rainfall. However, more recent research suggests that rainfall decreased from 1980 to 2009 during the ‘long-rains’ (March to June).

The historical record does not ‘prove’ that the current drought is directly attributable to climate change. True, there are now 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, but these exercises require reliable long term weather data that only exists for Europe and North America – no such studies as yet exist in the case of the current drought.

What about the future? Globally, climate change modelling projects an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like droughts and floods. In the absence of urgent action to slash global greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures in the region will probably increase by 3°C-4°C by 2080-2099 relative to 1980-1999.

But again, rainfall projections are unclear. Most modelling, as reflected in the IPCC’s last assessment, suggests more rain will fall in the East Africa region as a whole, with an increase in ‘heavy events’ (sudden downpours, so more flood risk). However, some recent studies suggest rainfall will actually decrease, particularly in the long rains.

The combination of higher temperatures and more unpredictable rains is alarming for food production. 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.

Conclusion? Attributing the current drought directly to climate change is impossible, but in the words of Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, in a talk at Oxfam last week, ‘worldwide, events like this have a higher probability of occurring as a result of climate change.’ Moreover, unless something is done, the current suffering offers a grim foretaste of the future – temperatures in East Africa are going to rise and rainfall patterns will change, making a bad situation worse.

agroforestryWhat to do? Firstly remember that while the drought is caused by lack of rainfall, famine is man-made. As Amartya Sen famously observed, famines do not occur in functioning democracies. The difference between the minor disruption of hosepipe bans, and the misery and suffering in the Horn, is down to a failure of politics and leadership. It is no accident that those communities worst affected by the drought are not just those blighted by conflict, but also by decades of official neglect and contempt from governments, who see pastoralism as an unwanted relic of the past.

Secondly, the famine shows the extreme vulnerability of poor people to weather events like failed rains. Governments and the international community have to save lives now, but also act to reduce that chronic vulnerability, building local abilities to manage the drought cycle, improving the flow of data, information and ideas for adapting to climate change and drastically increasing long-term investment in smallholder agriculture and pastoralism, which have shown they can provide a decent life for millions of East Africans, provided they are supported (rather than ignored) by governments.

Beyond helping East Africa and other vulnerable regions adapt to impending climate change, it is of course also incumbent on the rich and emerging economies to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. Fail to do that, and all attempts at adaptation are likely to offer only temporary relief.

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18 Responses to “Famine and climate change – what's the link?”
  1. Two points:

    1. Temperature rises are expected to increase rainfall. Drought is unlikely to be a growing problem.

    2. Slashing greenhouse gases in the developed world will make people less likely to trade with Africa, impoverishing them further, although I assume that this is what you intend, based on your enthusiasm for smallholding and pastoralism.

    Duncan: Thanks Bishop, on point 1, the post says exactly that, although it stresss the uncertainty around rainfall, both in terms of average, and the number of deluges. On point 2, I’ve posted about my scepticism on the localism/food miles agenda, eg here http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=7

  2. Steve Rekad

    “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then for “Just £2 a month” I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. ”

    Duncan: OK, that’s definitely one of the more original comments…….

  3. Jeffrey Ashe


    As you suggest although the long range trends for severe drought look poor much can be done to mitigate the problem of famine through direct investment in small holder agriculture. This requires farmers moving from agriculture that depends on 15 years of fallow to build soil fertility to one where the land can be farmed permanently. The question is how to do this on a mass scale at low cost and in a way that can spread from farmer to farmer.

    Oxfam America is starting to this by building on social and economic capital created through all women Saving for Change saving and lending groups it has established in more than 5,000 Malian villages with that have almost 400,000 members.

    As the population of Mali tripled over the past 50 years, the 15-year fallowing between planting that maintained soil fertility for millennia has been reduced to a year or two because of population pressure. Soil fertility is collapsing as the land turns into hardpan and water runs of the depleted soil.

    Roland Bunch, a world renowned agro-ecologist, is helping Oxfam revitalize soils in 20 villages through SfC groups with a plan to expand this initiative to hundreds of villages and fully document the experience. The only cost is the seeds and the training the villagers receive. The cowpeas inter-planted with food crops are the starting point, with bushes and trees growing more slowly but later providing shade to lower soil temperature, serve as windbreaks, and fertilize the soil from dropped leaves. With this soil building system planting and fallowing (with leaves from the cowpeas, bushes and trees fertilizing the soil at the same time crops are grown) occur at the same time. The land can remain in permanent production. Equally important, increased organic material in the soil helps water better percolate into the soil which in turn raises the water level and increases the growing season.

    Roland believes that what he sees as the coming famine in West Africa that could affect 160,000,000 villagers can be deflected by focusing on the mass application of these simple soil building techniques.

    Jeffrey Ashe
    Director of Community Finance
    Oxfam America

  4. Hi Duncan!

    A couple of points:

    1. The IPCC models predicted increased rainfall not droughts for East Africa

    East African Famine: Yet Another example why IPCC model is off the mark

    2. The ENSO cycle is the key driver of climate- here’s the latest peer review of a palaeo-climate study:

    La Ninas distant effects in East Africa: Droughts and floods are remote-controlled climate effects

    3. My blog predicted droughts over a year ago:

    Disasters to surge as La Niña Returns?

    4. 2010-11 La Nina was pronounced dead in April end. My blog consistently predicted a multi-year La Nina. Now NOAA has announced a La Nina Watch, just last week. This means the end to the present east African drought is long way off

    Is La Niña re-emerging after a brief break?

    6. Whenever the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is negative, La Ninas become more frequent and of greater intensity than El Ninos. The PDO turned negative in 2008. This means for the next 20-30 years, East Africa can be expected to experience more such droughts

    7. The ancient Inca civilization not only was aware of ENSO and planned their agriculture accordingly. It is a pity that thousands of years later, droughts and floods on carbon.

    8. Elimination of carbon is an euphemism for elimination of life. All life forms on each including the food we eat are carbon based. It is no coincidence that it is only after climate policies began to be implemented that we experience increase in global hunger and food price shocks

  5. Philip

    The current situation in the horn is terrible, and I’ve no doubt you are right to say that the famine is man-made. Similarly convincing are arguments that development in the area will reduce vulnerability to weather related disasters as well as generally improving the health and well-being of the locals. Such development presumably depends to a large extent on the provision of affordable and reliable electricity supplies – likely accompanied by increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

    I am unsure how Oxfam would resolve any apparent conflict between the need for development and concern over climate change? Presumably the comments attributed to John Beddington may not be the most helpful, especially given that most experts in this area report no evidence to date of any linkage between greenhouse gas emissions and extreme weather events. It worries me not a little that Oxfam, and other similar charities, damage their reputation by supporting greenhouse gas advocacy when such activities might best be left to the likes of Greenpeace.

  6. Duncan

    Interesting, with some of the comments on this site, and most of the more bonkers ones on the Guardian site, I get the distinct feeling that when it comes to this particular issue, people read what they think is being said, at least as much as what is actually being said. Shades of Mike Hulme’s excellent book, ‘Why We Disagree on Climate Change’, reviewed here http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=2274.

    Doesn’t bode well for the prospects for evidence-based policy making…….

  7. Philip

    Duncun: Not sure if you’re including my comment #5 in your general criticism. My understanding is that you are concerned climate change may be responsible for the current drought. Apologies if this is a misreading of your post. Otherwise my question to you still stands: How does Oxfam resolve the conflict between the need for development and its concern over climate change?

    Duncan: Thanks Philip, our view is that we have to a) help communities adapt to the climate change that is already in the pipeline at the same time as b) persuading the major emitters to reduce their emissions. Both of these have to happen, in addition to the more traditional development agenda of reducing poverty and inequality. Essentially, we have to rethink development, which in the past implicitly assumed a world without planetary boundaries. Hope that helps

  8. As a matter of coincidence, the first time I read your blog Duncan was your review of Mike Hulme’s book. For an official blog of Oxfam, it read independent which is why I visit your blog from time to time even though I look forward the day to read a post of a blog of yours totally free of official constraints.

    Back to Mike Hulme’s article, your post included an extract from his book “We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but what climate change can do for us.” This is to me is the essence what climate adapation should be all about.

    Your post concedes the IPCC models were off the mark. And the IPCC is the Bible of climate alarmism. The Bible was wrong you admit and then your next sentence was “However, some recent studies suggest rainfall will actually decrease, particularly in the long rains.”. This is typical of climate alarmism as it includes all probability under its umbrella as outcomes. Heads I win, Tails I win syndrome. This maybe a failsafe argument but for NGOs to translate such a policy view into operation plans will be a nightmare. You prepare for droughts and you get floods and vice versa. And I am sure you understand the gravity of this consequence at the programming level.

    So there are studies, and studies. It is your worldview that matters how you sieve them to arrive at a policyview. Now if you are going to continue to interpret climate solely through the prism of IPCC and carbon footprint, you will repeatedly fail to anticipate outcomes such as the East African famine.

  9. Philip

    Thanks, Duncan, for your thoughtful reply.

    My concern then remains that Oxfam may be advocating for a particular approach to climate change, that is both likely to fail and to reduce the scope for improving conditions for the people you mention in your post. You mentioned Mike Hulme above, and will therefore likely be aware that he has also collaborated on recent reports addressing how best to tackle the climate issue. It appears that success on both climate and development is far more likely if richer countries do everything in their power to enable access to cheap and reliable energy supplies to the billion or so people who do not currently benefit from them.

  10. Carmen S

    Is this propaganda what my donations are spent on?

    Duncan: Carmen, Oxfam is scaling up its work to reach 3 million people across Somalia, southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. So far it’s raised $36m, but needs to raise a further $55m to hit that target. So that’s where the bulk of your donations go, but I hope you’ll agree that we would be failing in our duty if we did not also worry, think, research and write about why people are facing this disaster, and then campaign like crazy to put it right.

  11. Charles Teller

    Ethiopia and Kenya share with Southern Somalia a similar slice of the Horn of Africa, yet look at the different responses and resultant lower wasting and reduced excess mortality now as compared to the last 10-25 years (especially in Ethiopia). Duncan, your next to last paragraph on chronic vulnerability of the poor and building local capacities is really the key, and how governments and international partners can facilitate this.

    It’s so important to be contextual and local in that part of the world. For example, a published excerpt from our many years of work in Ethiopia: “There are such large inter-district and agro-ecological variations in different types of vulnerability that require contextual and micro-level assessment…for targeting of more effective famine prevention, risk reduction and climate adaptation programs.” This from my chapter 12 on population pressure, vulnerability and food insecurity in 16 drought prone case study districts in Ethiopia in our just published book: C. Teller and Assefa Hailemariam, (eds.) “The Demographic Transition and Development in Africa: The Unique Case of Ethiopia”. http://www.springer.com/social science

    Duncan, let’s not get bogged down into the dizzy interpretation and conflicting data on climate change scenarios in East Africa (Ethiopia itself has three different bands, and climate variability IS INCREASING), but deal with the realities on the ground of resilience and adaptation, governance, capacity-building and long-term development and cooperation.

  12. Joe Prins

    I think that your “famine” comment hits the nail on the head, but than glances off without a spark. Thanks to the Bishop I landed here. You may have mentioned the unthinkable: Islam landed in Ethiopia about 20 years ago. Which hardly makes your work any easier with respect to gender rights. Neither do gun toting thugs that do not allow overland aid to reach those afflicted.Would Ethiopia as an ex Soviet state have fared any better under a democratic governmen? ( Retorical) Would they do any better than the current dictator Zenawie, who is supposedly elected with a 99+% majority, soviet style? Is it any surprise that inflation is at 38+% according to Bloomberg? Could you also mention that Ethiopia gets massive funding from the “world”, several Billions a year, minimum.So perhaps one should think the following: Some people vote with their feet and some go feet first. If you think that you can change this eternal human condition than may i respectfully suggest, keeping Stephen Hawking in mind, some religious belief on your part would at least sustain you. With respect.

  13. Drought is not a lack of rain, but “not enough water for plants to grow”

    When temperature goes up, so does evapotranspiration. The water evaporates from the soil, the rivers, the plants. This effect is quite huge. 800 mm/year is what is normal in the Belgium, a country not known for drought. 800 mm is semi-arid in the tropics.

    So if climatologists say temparature went up with 1 degree, and rainfall did not rise, and if this temperature went equally up during the growing season, we have now less water available for growth.

  14. Before we look at Somalia, lets look at the case of India first to draw some lessons.

    The first recorded famine was in 976 AD; some of the rivers in North India were reportedly flooded with corpses. So it is not as if man made climate change is responsible for all these terrible famines in current times. India in the past was believed to be basket case and all for the right reasons:

    • In 1876-77, 3 to 6 million died across India, largely in the south
    • In 1942-43, 1.5 to 2 million died just in Bengal
    • 1965-66, 1 to 1.5 million died mostly in north India
    • Even in the 1970s, many ‘experts’ predicted food riots, and believed that India would not be able to feed herself

    In 2009-10, we experienced a 23% shortfall in rain during the monsoon season (June-Sept)

    In the past, a drought of this magnitude would almost inevitably have led to famine. But it did not. Food was easily available but prices of course went up due to demand-supply forces in play.

    What has changed? Though there were many factors, primary among which was the fact we drought proofed our agriculture. Due to colonalization; at the time of independence the irrigation potential in the country stagnated. The British did not adequately facilitate the expansion of irrigation. The traditional irrigation canal systems which was maintained by the maharajas and the panchayats fell into disrepair. Independence changed this scenario. Though only one-third of our agricultural farmlands are still irrigated, much requires to be further done, it provides a critical mass to tide over droughts of magnitude as seen during 2009-10

    Secondly, it is not as if droughts or floods will grow exponentially as your post suggests. There is very little historical evidence to suggest it and if you have this data, I request you to share it. Within the next two years, we can expect a El Nino event probably coinciding with the maxima of this present solar cycle. Somalia will then face floods!

    The lesson is that natural cycles in play cause a wet period and dry period which alternates as cycles. Historical data for India the period 1871-2003 analyzed shows 19 flood years as compared to 21 drought year – defined as years with AISMR in excess/deficient of one standard deviation above the mean. The data shows that India is slightly more vulnerable to droughts than floods. Which is why the IPCC modeling of increasing rainfall actually was a harbinger of good tidings for India. But alas the prediction failed. Rainfall is fairly stable, if at all there is a very slight negative departure – rainfall standing around 99.7% of LPA. Like the case of East Africa, India ,makes mockery of IPCC model projections.

    Thirdly. There are 3 sub-categories of drought. Meteorological drought: when the actual rainfall in an area is significantly less than the climatological mean of that area. This by itself is not sufficient to create conditions leading to crop failure and famine. It all depends on the distribution of rainfall. This year in India e.g. the monsoon is forecasted at 95% of its LPA but this shortfall is kind of offset by better distribution. The next category is hydrological drought – drying up drinking water surface sources. The last is agricultural drought: inadequate soil moisture resulting in acute crop stress.

    The problem with NGOs like Oxfam is that you fail to understand that you can’t do very much in preventing meteorological drought. Over the years, Oxfam seem preoccupied at this level. But you can do much at the next two levels – hydrological and agriculture drought mitigation – water harvesting; watershed development, shifts to less water intensive plants etc.

    I am sorry to see that instead of Greenpeace being forced to be a clone of Oxfam over time, Oxfam now acts as if it is a clone of Greenpeace. And that’s where, if you haven’t noticed, is why you find your leadership of the sector slipping. And slipping badly. It is difficult to fathom what your unique differential is.

    The obsession with AGW, a failed science, is a good indicator why Oxfam’s claim of following evidence based policy is probably a manifestation of organizational self-deception. You only need to look at the response to this post, not only in this blog but also at the Guardian to realize the increasing disconnect between Oxfam and people.

  15. Hi Duncan

    It’s good to see you highlight the uncertainties in our climate projections – there is often a tendency to regard the models as providing actual predictions of what *will* happen, rather than merely physically plausible scenarios of what *may* happen. We still have a long way to go before we can make reliable regional forecasts – in the meantime, it is a matter of assessing risk in the face of considerable uncertainty, and trying to go forward on pathways that are adaptable to future improvements in the scientific advice.

    One issue I’m very interested in is this idea of the rains “becoming more unpredictable”. I hear this phrase a lot but am not sure exactly what it means. Our ability to forecast on seasonal timescales, while still limited, is improving all the time (the current drought was forecast in advance) so I don’t think “more unpredictable” can mean our actual ability to make forecasts. Does “unpredictable” mean “different to historical experience” – so established practices, which may be based on routines developed from past experience, are becoming less useful simply because “the past is no longer a guide to the future”?

    If so then there is an urgent need to further improve the forecast skill of the models, and not just at seasonal timescales, but also years to decades and beyond – including the ability to account for the effects of natural variability for the next few years, and also including other human drivers of climate such as land cover change. These were (mostly) not included in the IPCC AR4 simulations, but will be in the next generation for AR5. While these will still be far from perfect, it will be interesting to see whether we can have any greater confidence in the regional projections, to help adaptation be better informed.

  16. Let me know whether I understood correctly the observations made on climate models.

    Models are built to estimate trends, (not events) usually averaged over 30 years. But since we can’t wait for 30 years to see if a model is accurate, we can test models against a past of what we know happened. Accordingly, if we feed in real world data, the model should get the past right if accurate. The IPCC models fail this basic test. This is why as Richard explains the AR4 simulation bugs are now being attempted to be fixed in the next generation AR5 simulations, which Richard admits will still not be perfect. That is fair enough to understand. The real problem is that still policy decisions are advocated based on these model simulations despite everyone in the know of these imperfections!

    Bad as it is, it gets even worse. If “rains “becoming more unpredictable” as used in the post refers to “the past no longer being a guide to the future”, this becomes even more intriguing. Assuming its true, then we can no longer use the past to test the accuracy of a model. Then the next logical question – how else can we test such a model for accuracy? Apparently none and this serves the purpose of alarmists well as we need to wait the turn of the century to find out whether their prediction of 5% rise in global average temperature materialises. By then, most of us will be dead!

  17. Doesn’t bode well for the prospects for evidence-based policy making…….

    Well let’s face it, evidence is vastly overrated. The humanitarian crises that occur in Africa more often than droughts and famines it seems are not climate related but entirely political. Thus, as Dambisa Moyo advocates in her book Dead Aid, all our hand wringing and foreign aid is actually counter productive.

    Ms. Moyo is an academic and an African BTW.

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