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Drought Pushes Millions Into ‘Acute Hunger’ in Southern Africa

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An estimated 20 million people in southern Africa are facing what the United Nations calls “acute hunger” as one of the worst droughts in more than four decades shrivels crops, decimates livestock and, after years of rising food prices brought on by pandemic and war, spikes the price of corn, the region’s staple crop.

Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe have all declared national emergencies.

It is a bitter foretaste of what a warming climate is projected to bring to a region that’s likely to be acutely affected by climate change, though scientists said on Thursday that the current drought is more driven by the natural weather cycle known as El Niño than by global warming.

Its effects are all the more punishing because in the past few years the region had been hit by cyclones, unusually heavy rains and a widening outbreak of cholera.

The rains this year began late and were lower than average. In February, when crops need it most, parts of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique and Botswana received a fifth of the typical rainfall.

That’s devastating for these largely agrarian countries, where farmers rely entirely on the rains.

In southern Malawi, in a district called Chikwawa, some residents were wading into a river rife with crocodiles to collect a wild tuber known as nyika to curb their hunger. “My area needs urgent help,” the local leader, who identified himself as Chief Chimombo, said.

Elsewhere, cattle in search of water walked into fields still muddy from last year’s heavy rains, only to get stuck, said Chikondi Chabvuta, a Malawi-based aid worker with CARE, the international relief organization. Thousands of cattle deaths have been reported in the region, according to the group.

The first few months of every year, just before the harvest begins in late April and May, are usually a lean season. This year, because harvests are projected to be significantly lower, the lean season is likely to last longer. “The food security situation is very bad and is expected to get worse,” Ms. Chabvuta said.

The F.A.O. pointed out that, in addition to low yields, grain prices have been abnormally high because of the war in Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest grain exporters, as well as weak currencies in several southern African countries, making it expensive to buy imported food, fuel and fertilizers.

According to an analysis published Thursday by World Weather Attribution, an international coalition of scientists that focuses on rapid assessment of extreme weather events, the driving force behind the current drought is El Niño, a natural weather phenomenon that heats parts of the Pacific Ocean every few years and tweaks the weather in different ways in different parts of the world. In Southern Africa, El Niños tend to bring below-average rainfall.

El Niño made this drought twice as likely, the study concluded. That weather pattern is now weakening, but a repeat is expected soon.

The drought may also have been worsened by deforestation, which throws off local rainfall patterns and degrades soils, the study concluded.

Droughts are notoriously hard to attribute to global warming. That is particularly true in regions like Southern Africa, in part because it doesn’t have a dense network of weather stations offering detailed historical data.

Scientists are uncertain as to whether climate change played a role in this particular drought. However, there is little uncertainty about the long-term effects of climate change in this part of the world.

The average temperature in Southern Africa has risen by 1.04 to 1.8 degrees Celsius in the past 50 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the number of hot days has increased. That makes a dry year worse. Plants and animals are thirstier. Moisture evaporates. Soils dry out. Scientific models indicate that Southern Africa is becoming drier overall.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls Southern Africa a climate change “hot spot in terms of both hot extremes and drying.”

To the millions of people trying to cope with this drought, it hardly matters whether climate change or something else is responsible for why the skies have gone dry.

What matters is whether these communities can adapt fast enough to weather shocks.

“It’s really important that resilience to droughts, especially in these parts of the continent, should really be improved,” said Joyce Kimutai, one of the authors of the study and a researcher at the Grantham Institute, a climate and environment center at Imperial College London.

There are existing solutions that need money to put into effect: early warning systems that inform people about what to expect, insurance and other social safety, programs to help them prepare, as well as diversifying what farmers plant. Corn is extremely vulnerable to heat and erratic rains.

Golden Matonga contributed reporting.

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