The climate crisis has been  fueling extreme weather events across the African continent, from deadly floods and cyclones to powerful wildfires and heatwaves — this year’s record-high temperatures and delayed rainfall in southern Africa are proving to be no exception.

Parts of southern Africa have received half or less of their typical rainfall in the first half of 2024, resulting in an extreme drought that threatens to push more than 24 million people into severe hunger. As a result, the governments of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi have all declared national emergencies to warn of the growing humanitarian crisis and request urgent aid.

“What we’re seeing right now is that the region is in dire need of water,” Paul Skoczylas, director of the World Food Programme (WFP), New York Office, told Global Citizen. “For a region that should be considered the breadbasket of Africa, the people growing the food are now in need of food themselves. It’s that bad.”

What’s Happening in Southern Africa?

The recent dry spell began in late January. Instead of receiving the usual seasonal rains that supply the necessary water to crops, fill water sources, and fuel hydroelectric energy stations, countries across southern Africa are reporting their driest February in at least 40 years, according to climate researchers at the Climate Hazards Center, University of California in Santa Barbara.

Dry periods have periodically occurred throughout the region, but experts say that human-induced climate change has increased the severity of drought conditions over the last few decades. This past year’s El Niño phenomenon is also partly responsible for the season’s delayed rainfall.

“Change is really our new normal. In southern Africa, we see too little water, but in parts of the Horn, we see too much water. If La Niña kicks in, we may see too much water later this year,” Skoczylas said. “That really underscores why we’ve made the shift from calling it global warming to calling it climate change.”

The naturally occurring climate pattern occurs every 3-5 years and is characterized by warmer waters and below-average rainfall. It has also been linked to unrelenting rain in the southern hemisphere. While parts of Brazil combat deadly floods that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, dwindling water sources are parching Zambia’s rural communities and smallholder farms.

According to US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) experts, climate change is expected to continue altering weather patterns, rendering El Niño cycles even stronger and putting communities in affected regions at greater risk.

“While [El Niño] may be wrapping up in a few weeks, the impacts are just beginning to hit,” Skoczylas told Global Citizen.

For farmers in Zambia and Zimbabwe, the current failing harvests will lead to even less food in the coming months, threatening the agricultural systems these nations have been building over the years.

The drought also compounds other problems in the region, highlighting the true scale of need.

Zambia, for example, just came from battling the worst cholera outbreak in decades, with more than 22,000 recorded cases and 719 deaths at the time of publishing. As the availability of safe water becomes scarcer, individuals across the region may begin turning to contaminated water sources, increasing the risk of transmitting diarrhoeal and vector-borne diseases.

In addition, current dry conditions have the potential to drastically alter the lives of women and girls across southern Africa. Often tasked with walking far distances to seek out clean water for their families, women and girls are at greater risk of experiencing gender-based violence while on these long journeys. Girls, in particular, may be taken out of school to help their families access food and water, losing valuable educational opportunities.

How is the Drought Impacting Hunger Rates?

The current drought conditions are having a profound impact on food security in southern Africa, which already reports some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world.

According to the World Food Programme, 48% of Zambia’s population cannot meet their minimum calorie requirement; in Zimbabwe and Malawi, more than 3.8 million and 5.4 million people are considered food insecure, respectively.

Many countries in southern Africa are important for inter-regional trade, supplying staple crops — such as maize, cassava, sorghum, and rice — to the rest of the continent. In fact, over 50% of the population of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi work in the agricultural sector and rely on consistent weather patterns to support their livelihoods.

“Farmers are truly living on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Their complete existence, their livelihoods, are undergoing many changes,” Skoczylas told Global Citizen. “If you’re a farmer, prediction is significant so you can plan when to plant seeds and when to harvest, but climate change is making it more difficult to get ahead of things.” 

“In this region, a lot of the agriculture is rainfed, so they aren’t using irrigation systems,”  Skoczylas added. “When the rain stops, it’s a crisis.”

The season’s limited rainfall has caused widespread crop failure across the region. Maize, in particular, is the most widely consumed form of starch in Zambia; by the end of February, over 1 million hectares of maize crops had already been destroyed in central and southern Zambia due to the drought.

In Zimbabwe, maize harvests are down by 70% from last season, causing at least 2.7 million people to need consistent food assistance in the coming months.

Disrupted weather patterns are expected to become more common due to climate change, making harvests inconsistent and affecting food sources across Africa. This is particularly relevant for pastoralists, whose scorched pastures and reduced crops have made it difficult to care for cattle.

Currently, over 9,000 drought-related cattle deaths have been reported in Zimbabwe, with an additional 1.4 million cattle at risk of death.

As the risk of weather-related emergencies increases, organizations like WFP are partnering with the countries being hit the hardest by climate change. In support of nutrition efforts, a lot of the focus is on introducing adaptive farming technologies to smallholder and subsistence farmers.

“The move toward climate-smart agriculture is really important. Employing irrigation, low-water drip, and solar power will help farmers avoid expensive or diesel-powered systems that are carbon-emitting,” Skoczylas told Global Citizen. “Even with climate duress, the right mix of strategies can help people adapt.”

Right now, however, WFP and other international organizations are focused on stabilizing the region to prevent hunger rates from skyrocketing, such as by providing in-kind food donations and cash transfers for affected farmers.

“With a loss of harvest, we’re in an emergency phase. The countries responsible for growing food for the region don’t have enough food, and their loss of livelihoods will prevent them from buying food,” Skoczylas said. “The effects of emergency aid are incredibly important right now.”

What Can Global Citizens Do?

The abnormally dry conditions in southern Africa are forecasted to last until June when El Niño is expected to transition into a neutral weather period. However, the end of the dry weather pattern does not mean the end of the food insecurity and hunger that it has caused. Because of the reduced harvests, the full impacts of the drought will continue to be felt in the months to come.

To help more than 24 million people facing extreme hunger and possible starvation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has launched a drought flash appeal for affected regions. Donations will provide life-saving assistance in the form of food aid and cash transfers and support the construction of solar-powered boreholes to provide drinking water for people and livestock.

Take action with Global Citizen by asking your government representatives to donate to the UN’s flash appeal today.

Global Citizen Explains

Defeat Poverty

A Severe Drought Is Starving Millions in Southern Africa — Here’s What You Should Know

By Jaxx Artz