Is Climate Change to blame for the East African Drought?

May 16, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

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.’