An Agricultural Drought In East Africa Was Caused by Climate Change, Scientists Find

A group of scientists have concluded that a devastating drought in the Horn of Africa, where tens of millions of people and animals have been pushed into starvation, would not have happened without the influence of human-caused climate change.

World Weather Attribution, an organization that quickly assembles scientists to determine the impact of climate change on extreme weather events, said in a report released Thursday that climate change has made the drought 100 times more likely. The group of 19 scientists also agreed that the drought was likely to happen again in the next decade.

“Climate change has made this drought exceptional,” said Joyce Kimutai, a Kenya-based climate scientist and attribution expert who co-authored the report.

While climate change has had only a minimal effect on rainfall, the researchers said,  increased heat has forced more evaporation from plants and soils, drying them out. This drying effect would not have happened without climate change, the scientists said.

The Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, has suffered from drought conditions since the fall of 2020. Parts of these countries, which typically have two rainy seasons a year, have seen little to no rain for five consecutive seasons. Climate change has caused the “long rains,” which run between March to May, to become drier, while the “short rains,” which typically run between October and December, have become wetter. However, the weather phenomenon La Niña has masked these wetter conditions, making the short rains fail, too. 

Millions of animals have died and at least 20 million people have become acutely food insecure, the researchers said, noting that some estimates put the number of acutely food insecure people closer to 100 million. Tens of thousands have migrated from Somalia and Ethiopia into Kenyan refugee camps to flee famine and famine-like conditions.

The researchers stressed, however, that famine is a complex phenomenon, often stoked by conflict, political instability or poor government safety nets, and would not call the situation in the region a “climate-induced famine.”  

“While climate change played a big role… what drives food insecurity and famine is to a very large degree driven by vulnerability and exposure and not just a weather event,” said Friederike E. L Otto, a climate scientist with Imperial College London and one of the report’s authors. “There are a lot of other factors that drive how drought can turn into a disaster.”

To understand the impacts of climate change on the drought, the researchers studied weather data and computer models to compare today’s warmed climate to the climate before the late 1800s, using peer-reviewed methods. 

Otto noted that the report itself was not peer-reviewed but likely will be.

In 2021 and 2022, a network of early warning systems, along with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program, issued a relatively rare “joint alert,” saying that climate change was a primary driver of the drought in the region.

In 2021, during a drought in Madagascar, humanitarian groups called the famine there the world’s first “climate-induced famine.” World Weather Attribution scientists quickly corrected the statement, saying it was a mistake to link the drought there to human-caused climate change. Some researchers suggested that World Weather Attribution was incorrect and that climate change did, indeed, play a role. 

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Establishing a link between famine and climate change could prove critical.

Countries and governments have avoided the term “famine” to justify failed or insufficient responses to an unfolding humanitarian disaster. So the United Nations, in an effort to provide neutral guidance, uses a scale called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) to define the severity of food insecurity and what conditions constitute a famine. A review committee makes the classifications. 

Linking a famine to climate change complicates the situation, especially in the wake of last year’s decision, reached by countries at the annual U.N. climate negotiations, to establish a “loss and damage” fund to compensate low-emitting countries for climate change impacts. If famines are directly linked to climate change, that could potentially trigger compensation from the fund by rich countries to the countries where the famines occur.

The researchers said that early warning systems—which account for a complex mix of variables that could lead to a famine– have improved considerably. The problem, they said, is that these vulnerable countries don’t have the resources to respond to food crises.

“We’re still lacking a kind of link between these early warning systems and the response side,” said Cheikh Kane, of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center. 

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