Category Archives: Africa

El Niño brings a severe drought to Africa


From the U.S. Geological Survey:

“Really?” and “Strange, but true” might be popular reactions to the idea that periodic El Niño events in the Pacific Ocean could have a long distance influence on drought conditions in Africa, almost half-a-world away. Unlikely as it may seem, these connections are widely accepted by climate scientists and weather experts across the globe. Strange, but true, indeed.

El Niño and its counterpart, La Niña, are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific — the El Niño-Southern Oscillation – that shifts back and forth irregularly every two to seven years. By disrupting large-scale air movements in the tropics and thus affecting temperature, precipitation, and winds, these changes in the Pacific Ocean set off a cascade of global side effects with each oscillation.

Drought comes to Africa

In the northern hemisphere’s winter and fall of 2015, El Niño reached a record high temperature in December-January-February and triggered historic levels of famine far away in east Africa. A related drought across southern Africa affected 30 million people. In November of 2016 Zimbabwe still faced severe water shortages.

Observed Niño 3.4 sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies (vertical bars) and estimates of El Niño SST anomalies. Compared to an ensemble of climate change simulations (red line).  USGS image produced by Chris Funk. Public domain.

Observed Niño 3.4 sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies (vertical bars) and estimates of El Niño SST anomalies. Compared to an ensemble of climate change simulations (red line). USGS image produced by Chris Funk. Public domain.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California Santa Barbara, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracked the severe droughts in eastern and southern Africa. This science team has recently published a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (chapter 15) that assesses the extent that warmer ocean waters resulting from human-caused climate change likely intensified the impacts of the drought.

The authors of the study evaluated the impacts of the rainfall reductions and air temperature increases in Africa during this period by means of a contra-positive experiment, in which a “world without climate change” was simulated in complex hydrologic models. These experiments revealed that the warming of El Niño beyond its historical averages during 1946-1975 likely helped produce a very large reduction in streamflow: 35% for Ethiopia and 48% for Southern Africa. Both regions experienced severe water shortages, as illustrated by estimates of per capita water availability.

“In summary, what we seem to be seeing,” said Chris Funk, a USGS scientist and lead author of the study, “is that, as the oceans warm due to climate change, pockets of very warm sea surface temperatures develop that often act to increase the impact of natural climate variations such as El Niño and La Niña. These extreme sea surface temperatures can intensify droughts over food insecure areas, contributing to water stress and disrupting economic growth.”

The data and scientific reasoning for these findings are detailed in the publicly available professional paper.

Monitoring drought to get ahead of famine

Ethiopia suffered drought conditions in 2015 that were comparable to the severe drought and ensuing famine of 1984, during which hundreds of thousands of people perished. Like the case in the 1980s, the 2015 Ethiopian drought was related to a strong El Niño. Unlike that terrible episode, widespread acute food insecurity was avoided in 2015-2016 due to effective climate services, early warning of potential food insecurity, and social safety nets, particularly through the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

USGS Water Hole Status map, early December 2016. Information source: earlywarning.usgs.gov

USGS Water Hole Status map, early December 2016. Information source: earlywarning.usgs.gov

Created by USAID in 1985 to help decision-makers plan for humanitarian crises, FEWS NET provides evidence-based analysis of food insecurity in some 35 countries. Implementing team members include the government agencies of NASA, NOAA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and USGS, along with the commercial entities, Chemonics International Inc. and Kimetrica.

Scientists at USGS, University of California Santa Barbara, NASA, and NOAA monitored the severe droughts associated with the extreme 2015-16 El Niño event in partnership with FEWS NET specialists in Africa and Washington, helping the U.S. Agency for International Development provide early and effective humanitarian assistance. The combined information derived from U.S. satellite remote sensing, climate forecasting, and land surface modeling capabilities provided the agro-climatic evidence needed by FEWS NET food security analysts to project livelihood impacts many months in advance. The resulting early warning of potential acute food insecurity was instrumental in mobilizing the resources needed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

Austerity grabs hold in Egypt, the army’s called out


In January, 2011, a wave of massive demonstrations overthrew the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The revolution was greatly assisted by the American State Department, which had been busily furnishing secure digital communications devices to dissidents opposed to Middle Eastern and African governments the U.S. thought needed to go.

But when the Egyptian people elected as President Mohamed Morsi, the U.S. didn’t like it, he was ousted in a coup headed by a general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, trained at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

But the combination of two revolutions and the ongoing shocks of the Great Recession sent Egypt spiraling ever deeper into debt.

Finally Sisi bit the bullet and applied to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout loan, and negotiations began.

The inevitable demand of the IMF: Austerity

The Economist, the magazine with the world’s richest readership, offers a neoliberal take on what happened next:

Back in August the IMF had offered the former general a $12bn lifeline, but it came with tough conditions attached. At long last he has fulfilled them, and the IMF money will soon start to flow.

So far Mr Sisi has attempted three difficult but necessary things, as demanded by the IMF. On November 3rd he allowed the Egyptian pound to float. It is now trading at a market rate of 18 or so to the dollar; previously it had been propped up at a crazily overvalued rate of about 8.8. However, it is still not clear whether this float is genuine. The pound could easily come under renewed pressure, and there is no guarantee that the government will not suspend the float and see the black market return. External credit-card transactions are still restricted, so the market is not free even now.

Similarly, the other two main IMF conditions have been fulfilled only up to a point. In August parliament passed a long-promised law introducing a value-added tax. It is subject to many exemptions; but it will still bring in badly needed revenue, and the rate is set to rise next year. The work of reducing government subsidies was also advanced last week, with increases of up to 50% in the local-currency price of petrol, after earlier rises in the price of electricity. But both are still well below their true market prices. And, lamentably, food subsidies have not been cut at all—despite their cost, complexity and vulnerability to fraud. Rather than subsidising the price of bread, the government would help more people if it simply handed out cash to poor Egyptians.

And now the loan is coming through

From United Press International:

The International Monetary Fund approved a $12 billion loan for Egypt, an effort to revive the country’s struggling economy by “restoring stability and confidence in the economy, and implementing structural reforms that will create jobs,” officials said.

The approval allows for the first installment of the three-year loan, $2.75 billion, to be immediately disbursed. The remainder of the loan will be phased in over the duration of the program, subject to five reviews, the IMF said.

“The Egyptian authorities have developed a homegrown economic program, which will be supported under the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility, to address longstanding challenges in the Egyptian economy,” Christine Lagarde, IMF managing director and chair, said.

IMF officials said political instability, regional security issues and the global economic slowdown have hobbled the Egyptian economy. Some of the issues that led to the country’s economic instability included high government deficit, public debt and weak job growth.

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Big Agra African land grabs raise risk of violence


Regions of Africa where the relative availability of fresh water, as calculated by the Blue Water Index [BWI] threatens violence as the competition got fresh water between smallholders and giant foreign-owned farms intensifies.

Regions of Africa where the relative availability of fresh water, as calculated by the Blue Water Index [BWI] threatens violence as the competition got fresh water between smallholders and giant foreign-owned farms intensifies.

We’ve long been concerned about the increasing share of African farmlands, once owned in common by the people who farm them, being sold to foreign agricultural giants by cash-strapped African governments.

One of our deepest concerns has been the power of those corporations, largely own by Chinese and European multinationals, to gain control over the continent’s water supplies, raising the risk of starvation and violence for the planet’s poorest continent.

And now comes a study confirming our suspicions and revealing just where the risks of conflict are greatest.

From Sweden’s Lund University:

For the first time, researchers point to areas in Africa where foreign agricultural companies’ choice of crops and management of fresh water are partly responsible for the increased water shortages and greater competition for water. This in turn increases the risk of outright conflicts between all those who need water – plants, animals and humans.

During the 21st century, foreign companies have leased large tracts of land in Africa – more so than in other parts of the world – in order to produce cheap food, cheap timber and cheap raw material for biofuels. An interdisciplinary study from Lund University in Sweden shows that about three per cent of the land leased in Africa by foreign companies has been registered as currently in production, for the purpose of growing crops. For various reasons, the companies have either pulled out or not started producing on other leased land.

The study also shows that the crops that foreign investors decide to grow often require more water than the traditionally grown crops. Furthermore, it shows that the same crop can have very different needs for water, depending on the climate where it is grown and which irrigation systems the companies use.

The researchers in Lund, together with a colleague in France, have developed a model that shows how much water is needed for different production systems, in different types of climates, in different parts of the continent. The model takes into account both the size of the land and the type of irrigation system.

This model has enabled researchers to distinguish between areas where rainwater accounts for the largest share of irrigation water, and areas where large foreign agricultural companies satisfy more than half of their water needs by using fresh water sources, such as groundwater, rivers and ponds. This has allowed the researchers to highlight the areas around the continent where increased competition for water escalates the risk of water-related conflicts between different sectors and ecosystems.

“These hotspots have not been identified in this way before. Previous studies have often focused on the size of the area and not on how much fresh water is used to grow the demanding crops that foreign companies are interested in”, says physical geographer Emma Li Johansson, who was in charge of the study.

The leases are often written for periods of 33 to 99 years. The contracts rarely include any rules or limits concerning the use of water.

“Our research can perhaps lead to foreign investors showing greater consideration for how much water is necessary, in relation to how much water is actually available. Hopefully, the results can serve as a basis for documents that regulate the water consumption of large-scale farming companies”, says Emma Li Johansson.

The results are published in an article in the scientific journal PNAS.

Download article: Johansson E L et al (2016) Green and blue water demand from large-scale land acquisitions in Africa. PNAS (open access).

Maps of the day: African farmland, irrigated and not


From HarvestChoice, an international NGO devoted to farming in sub-Saharan African, consisting of governmental agencies and NGOs and coordinated by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the University of Minnesota:

Total cropland in Africa

BLOG Cropland

Irrigated cropland in Africa

BLOG Cropland irrigated

Maps of the day II: We’re all getting much taller


But Americans, once the third tallest men and fourth tallest women in the world in 1914 have fallen comparatively in the century since, now ranking 37th and 42nd tallest place respectively by 2014, according to a new global survey:

Relative global heights of men in 1914 [top] and 2014 [bottom]:

BLOG Ht men

And the keys for 1914, left, and 2014, right:

BLOG Ht men upper

BLOG Ht men lower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the same comparison for women, with 1914 above and 2014 below:

BLOG Ht women

And the relative scales for 1914 [left] and 2014 [right]:

BLOG Ht women upper

BLOG Ht women lower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So just how much taller and where?

A report on the study from Imperial College London:

Dutch men and Latvian women are the tallest on the planet, according to the largest ever study of height around the world.

The research, led by scientists from Imperial College London and using data from most countries in the world, tracked height among young adult men and women between 1914 and 2014.

Among the findings [open access], published in the journal eLife the research revealed South Korean women and Iranian men have shown the biggest increases in height over the past 100 years. Iranian men have increased by an average of 16.5cm, and South Korean women by 20.2cm. Interactive world maps are available here.

To see a full list of the countries please click here.

The height of men and women in the UK has increased by around 11cm over the past century. By comparison, the height of men and women in the USA has increased by 6cm and 5cm, while the height of Chinese men and women has increased by around 11cm and 10cm.

The research also revealed once-tall USA had declined from third tallest men and fourth tallest women in the world in 1914 to 37th and 42nd place respectively in 2014. Overall, the top ten tallest nations in 2014 for men and women were dominated by European countries, and featured no English-speaking nation. UK women improved from 57th to 38th place over a century, while men had improved slightly from 36th to 31st place.

The researchers also found that some countries have stopped growing over the past 30 to 40 years, despite showing initial increases in the beginning of the century of study. The USA was one of the first high-income countries to plateau, and other countries that have seen similar patterns include the UK, Finland, and Japan. By contrast, Spain and Italy and many countries in Latin America and East Asia are still increasing in height.

Furthermore, some countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East have even seen a decline in average height over the past 30 to 40 years.

There’s lots more after the jump, including an explanation for humanity’s vertical explosion. . .

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Map of the day II: The AIDS crisis continues


From Agence France Presse:

Some 2.5 million people are still becoming infected with HIV every year even as drugs have slashed the death rate, a global AIDS study says.

Some 2.5 million people are still becoming infected with HIV every year even as drugs have slashed the death rate, a global AIDS study says.

El Niño/La Niña cycle boosts African HIV rates


Drought spawned by the El Niño/La Niña cycle has created times of desperation in Southern Africa, with failing harvest leading more women to sell sex in order to survive, UNICEF reports.

From the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Drought exacerbated by the El Nino weather pattern could lead to a spike in new HIV infections in southern Africa as women and girls turn to sex to survive and patients miss treatments, the United Nations childrens’ agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.

More than 60 million people, two thirds of them in east and southern Africa, are facing food shortages because of droughts linked to El Nino, a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, according to the United Nations.

Many patients are refusing to take anti-retroviral therapy (ART) on an empty stomach, others are deciding to spend their limited income on food rather than transport to a health facility, UNICEF said.

“People sometimes are having to resort to these extreme choices between eating and taking life-saving medication,” Patsy Nakell, UNICEF spokeswoman, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“This is the global epicentre of the HIV epidemic and when you have a situation like this where people are struggling to have access to food and to clean water then you know (they) will resort to what we call negative coping mechanisms.”

Once again, we are confronted with the multiplicity of complex systems, in which a change in one factor leads to changed outputs from other factors.

Climate change means more than rising seas and endangered coastal cities.