FAO in Southern Africa prepares for the looming 2018/19 El Niño occurrence

As predictions for El Niño reach 83 percent, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has begun preparing for its potential impact on the upcoming planting season across Southern Africa with a recent workshop in Johannesburg.

Given that previous El Niño events in Southern Africa resulted in drought conditions in most of the subregion, and following last season’s poor harvests that left about 30 million people food insecure—a further climatic shock in the 2018/19 season will have far-reaching consequences for the livelihoods, food security and nutrition of Southern Africa’s most vulnerable families and communities.

According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) of the countries at highest risk from an El Niño event, many people are in areas that fall in Phase 3 category, meaning people are unable to meet their food needs, and that there are pockets of Phase 4, meaning they face large food consumption gaps. This is a critical situation that requires constant watch as their capacity to produce in the coming season will already have been eroded.

Effective and timely response to protect the vulnerable

Lewis Hove, Regional Resilience and Emergency Coordinator for Southern Africa, said, “It is critical that as FAO we are well prepared for early action to support farmers in the subregion to respond to this threat in order to avoid a possible crisis that could further add to the existing food insecurity. He further added, ”We learned valuable lessons from the previous El Niño and we will apply best practices to ensure effective and timely response that will protect vulnerable farming households from the looming threat.”

The main outcome of the meeting in Johannesburg was the development of a subregional response action plan that will strengthen the capacity of FAO Country Offices to support governments and other partners in responding to the impacts of the El Niño. This action will minimize the risk it may pose to the food security and livelihoods of vulnerable households and communities in Southern Africa.

While cereal stocks in the region remain ample, a spell of dry weather and erratic rains early in the season could signal multiple risks to agricultural production including an increased chance of outbreaks of transboundary pests and diseases of crops and livestock.

Monitoring of transboundary pests and diseases

Precipitation trends greatly matter for the Fall Armyworm, an invasive transboundary pest that has been destroying maize across the subregion in the last two seasons. With the anticipated below-normal rainfall pattern, there is also a need to heighten monitoring of possible outbreaks of transboundary diseases of livestock, such as foot-and-mouth disease, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (H5N8) and others, due to movement of livestock in search of grazing and water, increasing the livestock-wildlife interface.

For many farming households, livestock provides the means by which low-cost land preparation can be achieved in a timely manner. Livestock is also important in the resilience cycle of farmers as it offers households a fall-back option to fill the food gap caused by crop failure while also offering an opportunity for early rebound from the shock. FAO is therefore working closely with governments and partners across the region to minimize the risks of a potential El Niño on livelihoods and food security.