The country’s last mega-droughts killed hundreds of thousands. Could the same thing happen again?

By Tim McDonnell |

Tens of millions of people are facing a hunger crisis as a widespread drought is decimating crops and livestock in Ethiopia and southern Africa. The drought—which has received far less US media coverage California’s dry spell—could prove to be one of the most devastating consequences of the ongoing El Niño event that is wreaking havoc on global weather.

What’s happening?

Last month, the United Nations found that drought in southern Africa has exposed 14 million people to hunger. In South Africa, 2015 was the driest year on record since 1904. And across huge swaths of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, and elsewhere, conditions are the driest they’ve been in the last 35 years, according to the UN.

Famine Early Warming System

Famine Early Warming System

The majority of staple grains in these countries are produced by small-scale farmers who don’t have access to irrigation, making them especially vulnerable to low rainfall. And because most crops there are grown for subsistence, rather than for sale, a bad harvest has graver consequences than simply lost income. From the Associated Press:

Families are going up to two weeks without a solid meal in Madan’ombe, a village in Masvingo province in southern Zimbabwe… Loveness Ndlovu and her six children prepare smoked fish on a fireplace in a round hut devoid of any other food. The children, who last tasted meat a month ago, know better than to salivate over the six catfish caught in a lake by their father, Zimaniwa.

“They can only touch the fish, they cannot eat,” Ndlovu said. “It’s two weeks now since I last had a proper meal. If it gets worse, I will have to beg from other villagers so I can at least feed my kids.”

The parents plan to barter the fish for other foodstuffs such as maize. Ordinarily, the entire family would be busy in the fields, weeding a knee-high maize crop. Now they can only watch as skinny donkeys graze on failed crops. Vast fields lie dry and fallow.

The last resort is foreign food aid; last month, Zimbabwe declared a state of emergency in the hope of mobilizing a greater response from the UN’s World Food Program and other donor organizations.

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