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Southern Africa stricken by the effects of climate change: 45 million people threatened by famine

This summer, the Victoria Falls, over which flows the Zambezi River, between Zambia and Zimbabwe, were at their lowest level for 25 years. There is hope that the water level will rise with the start of the rainy season. On the reverse side of the striking images of a world-famous site, this region of Africa has just undergone an exceptional drought, again underlining its great vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

A historic drought

The drought that has struck southwest Zambia is the worst recorded in forty years, with the lowest level of seasonal rainfall since 1981, the reference year. The drought has led to a shortage of drinking water and affected farm production. It has also reduced hydroelectricity production on the river and its tributaries, which supply 80% of the country’s electricity. In September, the Ministry of Energy went as far as suggesting the diversion of water from the River Congo, some 100 km away to maintain levels in the reservoir of the binational dam (Zambia, Zimbabwe) of Kariba on the Zambezi, as the reservoir was only 15% full.

This proposal was quickly dismissed for technical reasons, since the Zambezi lies at a higher altitude than the Congo, even though the countries agreed to such cooperation.

Major economic and health impacts

In the most severely affected regions, there is no drinking water and lost harvests have had a major impact on the country’s food security. According to the Ministry of Finance, the country lacks the equivalent of 355,000 tonnes of corn, a staple crop. And, according to the Red Cross, more than two million people are greatly exposed to food insecurity in Zambia. In Zimbabwe too, nearly a third of the population in rural areas could be faced with food shortages before the next harvest in 2020, according to the United Nations.

The fauna has also been hit. At least 55 elephants have already died in Zimbabwe and a 100 in Botswana during the last two months due to food and water shortages. The income generated by tourism, extremely important for these countries, could decrease over time if such long drought episodes continue more often.


What is the political response?

The political authorities appear to be bereft of solutions. The Zambian President, Edgar Lungu, shared photos of the Victoria Falls run dry on Twitter, as a gesture of awareness of the effects of climate change on the environment and on the life of the people.

For him, “it is without doubt that developing countries like Zambia are the post impacted by climate change and the least able to afford its consequences”. He even acknowledged a share of responsibility in his speech made to parliament in September: “Have successive governments done enough to prepare the population to confront this situation? Have we done enough to set up alarm and forecasting systems? Perhaps not”, he concluded.

The impact of climate change on the Victoria Falls has not yet been fully assessed. Scientists rightly recall that there have always been seasonal variations in water levels. It nonetheless remains certain that the whole of southern Africa is increasingly exposed to the impacts of climate change. During the last five years, the region has had only one year in which rainfall was normal, according to the World Food Programme. Persistent droughts, cyclones and floods have destroyed harvests and, according to the UN agency, 45 million people will find themselves in a situation of severe food insecurity in the next six months. “We are faced with the worst drought in thirty-five years in the central and western regions” of southern Africa, emphasised Margaret Malu, regional director of the WFP there. The temperatures in southern Africa are increasing at twice the average elsewhere on the planet.

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