La Nina is here: once more, we are not ready

Guest blog by Nellie Nyang’wa, regional director for Oxfam in Southern Africa

Southern Africa is still reeling from worst drought in three decades leaving 28 million people in need of immediate aid.

After months of uncertainty, scientists have finally confirmed that a weak La Nina has arrived and is likely to last into the early months of 2017. Historically, this phenomenon brings heavy rains to the region, and along with the rains often comes widespread flooding and a higher risk of diseases, including cholera and malaria.

It is almost exactly two years ago this month, when Southern Africa was hit by a deluge of rain that caused rivers to overflow and widespread flooding across the region. As the rains continued to fall, it became clear by Christmas of 2014 that the situation would only get worse.

It did.

By end of January 2015 devastating floods had left many people dead, washed away homes, destroyed crops and killed thousands of livestock. Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe were among the worst affected, with extensive infrastructure damage. Reports revealed that flooding had cut off roads, disrupted power supply and destroyed bridges, houses and schools. Thousands of people were left displaced.  

In the months that followed unwelcome, though not entirely unexpected, problems like cholera had taken root. In Mozambique alone, nearly 9,000 cases were reported and at least 65 deaths recorded.

Before the recent confirmation of La Nina, forecasters from the region had already predicted that the most areas would experience normal to above normal rains this season.

This comes as the region continues to battle against the biting impacts of the worst drought seen in this region in over three decades which, super charged by El Nino, has left 41 million people severely affected, 28 million of these in need of immediate aid. Before we can get back on our feet, the 2014/2015 floods scenario could play out again in the region by the end of the year.

The recent events in South Africa which saw at least six people killed and widespread damage to infrastructure and property after deadly flash floods – not be directly linked to La Nina – hit parts of Johannesburg, are a stark reminder of how quickly entire livelihoods can be wiped out if we are not able to cope and ready to respond.

Since the middle of the year, humanitarian agencies including Oxfam, have repeatedly called for national governments and regional actors to lay down measures that will shield people already reeling from the drought, from being further drained by impacts of the La Nina rains.

However, for a variety of reasons governments, donors and humanitarian actors were slow to act and have now lost crucial time for preparedness.

A lot remains undone

Firstly, very little is being said and done about La Nina and the predicted heavy rains, by those who should be saying and doing much more. Most of the countries at risk, including Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, are yet to develop concrete plans that will enable them to respond to the possible damaging impacts of La Nina. At best, humanitarian agencies are now factoring in mitigation activities in their current drought responses. For example in Malawi, cholera vaccinations campaigns have begun in three of the most
flood-prone districts and medical supplies hubs set up in eight others.

International donors too have not risen to the occasion. Funds needed to respond to the current drought and prepare adequately for the coming rains, have been painstakingly slow in coming. As of September, the $2.9 billion SADC humanitarian appeal for the drought response was a whopping 86% under-funded.

This funding shortfall and a lack of flexibility enabling a shift from long-term, resilience-building programmes to humanitarian assistance has meant that regional structures like SADC and the U.N. agencies could not put in place the necessary capacity for coordination, logistics  and resource the responses needed across sectors quickly enough. Weak national data management and monitoring systems have compounded issues.

The time to act is now

Governments in the region and humanitarian actors must now move swiftly to support livelihood recovery activities and put in place urgent, “no regrets” measures to support communities in the event of flooding, disease and other possible impacts of the expected heavy rains.

The success of the next harvests is critical for millions of vulnerable families in Southern Africa. The coming rains could improve water availability by December, offering the potential for good harvests if farmers get the necessary support to fend off the lingering impacts of the droughts and at the same time prepare to take advantage of the rains for cultivation.

Farmers need appropriate seeds and fertilisers delivered in good time.

Equally, the recovery of livestock must be prioritised. Supplementary feeding during the livestock lean season and the restocking of sheep and goats once grazing areas have recovered from the expected rains will go a long way in securing rural livelihoods.

In many parts of the region, critical infrastructure is in disrepair, and floods could cause further damage and degradation of water sources, for example. Rehabilitation of sanitation facilities, household and community water points, and provision of support for water harvesting at the household level are needed. Support in this regard must protect against the possible degradation of basic infrastructure should flooding occur, and ensure availability of sufficient, safe water and sanitation for communities. Proper
waste management is needed to prevent and contain disease outbreaks.

Lastly, stocks of food and other essential items, including medicines and cholera kits, should be pre-positioned as soon as possible, before heavy rains render poor roads impassable, cutting off hard to reach areas.

And, of course, very few of these things are possible if donors and governments do not act with the urgency required to avail the funds needed.

In the long term

For years, Southern Africa has seen droughts and floods come and go; it is inexcusable that these keep resulting in such deep, widespread and complex crises that leave people’s livelihoods in disarray and households worse off every time.

A range of responses are needed to deal effectively with climate-related shocks, which as science tells us, are expected to occur with greater regularity due to climate change. At the core of these responses is the need for longer-term investment in climate change adaptation and economy-wide resilience measures.