Record-Setting Drought in Africa Requires U.S. Leadership on Disaster Relief

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Record-Setting Drought in Africa Requires U.S. Leadership on Disaster Relief

May 4, 2016 5 min read Download Report
Joshua Meservey
Joshua Meservey
Former Research Fellow, Africa
Joshua studied African geopolitics, counterterrorism, and refugee policy at The Heritage Foundation.

The latest iteration of El Niño—a recurring weather pattern associated with warmer Pacific Ocean temperatures—is one of the strongest ever recorded. The higher temperatures it has brought, coupled with unusually low rainfall in a number of countries, has since early 2015 created a drought in swathes of Africa more severe than has been seen in decades. The drought has decimated crops and livestock, and hunger among their citizens is overwhelming the ability of countries to respond adequately.

The crisis is projected to worsen and requires sustained effort from the international community to avoid further deterioration. It is also another reminder of the need for reforms that strengthen countries’ resiliency to food crises and the U.S.’s ability to respond quickly and effectively.

Drought and Crisis in East and Southern Africa

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-led Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), at least fourteen African countries have regions experiencing “crisis” or “emergency” levels of food scarcity, the latter of which is one step before the famine designation. Four African countries—Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe— and a regional body, the Southern African Development Community, have declared states of emergencies.

Below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures have combined to create the drought. Northern Somalia has had three years of failed rains. Zimbabwe’s most recent rainy season was the driest on record, as was all of 2015 for South Africa since it began keeping records in 1904. October 2015 to January 2016 was the driest stretch in 35 years for areas of eight Southern African countries.[1]

Droughts are particularly dangerous in Africa given how dependent many of the continent’s people are on agriculture. Eighty-five percent of Ethiopia’s population—one of two African countries of highest concern according to FEWS NET—works in the agricultural sector. Agriculture employs more than 60 percent of the population throughout all of East Africa, and about 70 percent of Southern Africans.[2]

The effects are already being felt. The U.N.’s humanitarian agency estimates that more than 19 million people in East Africa need critical or emergency humanitarian assistance, while as many as 32 million Southern Africans lack enough food, a number that could rise to 49 million in the coming months.[3] Acute malnourishment is rising quickly in affected areas as well, as is the number of people contracting waterborne diseases from drinking unclean water.

The coping mechanisms that poor households use to weather crises are also failing. People who work as day laborers during harvest season have little, if any, work, given the poor crops. Households have resorted to selling off their livestock—akin in developed countries to emptying one’s bank account—to buy food, yet are receiving below-average prices. As the supply of staples has shrunk, prices have spiked—in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa, maize prices are nearly double their five-year average[4]—making food unaffordable for many.

Worse Yet to Come

There is little relief in sight as the crisis has not yet peaked. The April/May harvest is likely to be poorer than normal given the second straight year of low rainfall in many areas. Crop production this year in Malawi is projected to be 20 percent to 25 percent below average, 25 percent to 30 percent below average in Zambia, and 40 percent below average for South Africa,[5] forcing the Southern African region’s breadbasket to start importing maize. There is a chance as well that La Niña—characterized by colder-than-usual tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures that often brings extreme weather—could follow on El Niño’s heels towards the end of 2016, extending the crisis.

Droughts have knock-on effects beyond the danger to life and property they pose. Some people will migrate in search of water or grazing for their livestock, potentially leading them into conflict with neighbors trying to protect their own limited resources. Already, Ethiopians are crossing into Somaliland, an autonomous region of northern Somalia, in search of water and pasture. In a region prone to deadly raids among competing tribes, there is a risk that displacement will lead to further violence.

Many of the affected countries have built systems to mitigate the effects of drought, but they are being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. The international community is ramping up relief efforts, but as of April 2016, nearly $2 billion of the approximately $3 billion emergency request was unfunded.[6]

The Role of Poor Governance

The crisis has been made far worse by poor governance in many of the affected countries. Zimbabwe’s vulnerability is due largely to the ruinous economic policies of its nonagenarian dictator, Robert Mugabe, while South Sudan is gripped by a civil war between the president and vice-president’s forces that exacerbates the crisis.

Yet many of the strained countries are allies that cooperate with the U.S. on a range of issues. Ethiopia, for example, is one of the countries in greatest danger from the drought, but is also a major contributor to the military coalition fighting the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia. Similarly, Djibouti hosts the U.S.’s only permanent military base in Africa, which is integral to counterterror operations in Africa and the Middle East.


In the face of a burgeoning crisis, the United States should:

  • Rally the international community to respond quickly. The U.S. has existing resources budgeted for disaster relief it is using to respond, but it should also urge a timely, increased response from allies before the crisis worsens. Action now will save lives and be less expensive than intervening later when the crisis has deepened.
  • Do no harm. Poorly planned humanitarian responses can have unintended ill effects. Dumping aid into a country can drive its merchant class out of business. In conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan—one of the countries hardest hit by the current crisis—misappropriated aid has bolstered armed groups. Regimes such as Ethiopia and Zimbabwe have used aid as a weapon against political opposition, withholding food from opposition areas as punishment. The U.S. needs to work diligently to avoid these and other pitfalls to ensure its response does not inadvertently exacerbate parts of the crisis.
  • Reform how aid is delivered. “Buy American” provisions and subsidies to shipping companies that deliver aid make the U.S. food aid program unnecessarily expensive and inefficient. The U.S. adopted very modest reforms in this area in 2013, but eliminating all such subsidies and provisions would enable quicker and more effective aid to reach more people.[7]
  • Facilitate and encourage African countries’ connections to countries with agricultural expertise. Israel faces many of the same climactic and water-scarcity challenges as drought-prone African countries, yet is a food exporter and one of the world’s leading agricultural innovators. The U.S. should encourage and facilitate an enhanced relationship between its African allies and Israel that involves the latter using its technology and expertise to help African countries create more efficient and resilient agricultural sectors.

Countries around the world look to the U.S. to lead in calamities of all kinds, as with the current African food crisis. The U.S. should work to ameliorate the crisis while also pushing for longer-term reforms that can break the cycle of drought and food insecurity that grips too many regions of Africa.

—Joshua Meservey is Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] “Southern Africa-Drought: Fact Sheet #1, Fiscal Year (FY) 2016,” USAID, April 8, 2016, (accessed April 26, 2016), and Ed Stoddard, “South Africa Suffers Driest Year on Record in 2015,” Reuters, January 14, 2016, (accessed April 26, 2016).

[2] “Feed the Future,” U.S. Government Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, (accessed April 21, 2016) and (accessed April 21, 2016).

[3] “El Niño in East Africa,” UNOCHA, (accessed April 26, 2016), and “El Niño: Overview of Impact, Projected Humanitarian Needs and Response,” UNOCHA, April 13, 2016, (accessed April 21, 2016).

[4] “Southern Africa Food Security Outlook (February to September 2016),” FEWS NET and USAID, March 2016, (accessed April 21, 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] “El Niño: Overview of Impact, Projected Humanitarian Needs and Response,” UNOCHA.

[7] Bryan Riley and Brett D. Schaefer, “U.S. Food Aid Should Focus on Combating Hunger and Malnutrition in Poor Nations,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3910, April 15, 2013, (accessed April 21, 2016).


Joshua Meservey
Joshua Meservey

Former Research Fellow, Africa