Why South Africa is baking in dry spell as the East drowns in floods

Flooded driveway in Runda estate, Nairobi. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

When it shone, it killed. Now as it rains, it is still killing us. As Kenya and the larger eastern Africa grapple with flooding, the contrasting, yet deadly effects of the emerging weather patterns cannot go unnoticed.

It is like Mother Nature has invented a climatic see-saw, as she exerts revenge on humanity, while smiling gleefully at the lethal outcomes of her wrath.

Currently, over 257 people have lost their lives as a result of heavy rains and the resultant floods in Kenya. The deaths of dozens of locals in Mai Mahiu as a result of a burst of a neglected water tunnel perhaps stands out as an unkind testament to how unprepared we are as a nation in the face of the changing climate.

Rwanda, Tanzania, Somalia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have also been enduring the deadly torrid torrent.

But the argy-bargy over fake fertiliser and seeds aggravate the threat of food security that was already dire, while affirming the governance, financing and policy failures that led to Kenya depending on food imports and aid.

It is a fact that increasing temperatures and sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, and more extreme weather patterns are climate indicators threatening food security in Africa. Currently, the better part of eastern Africa is experiencing flooding as a result of the ongoing rains while Southern Africa is roasting under a relentless sun.

Food basket nations such as  Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi have sounded alarm over looming food shortages, with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) stepping in to alleviate the situation.

For over four dragging years, this is where eastern Africa was, as communities cried for food and water, and many were forced to dig deeper into their pockets to purchase common groceries whose prices had spiked by unimaginable scales. 

Meanwhile, floods were devastating the South and impaling crop production apart from leaving many dead. The region also experienced Cyclone Freddy, which left to over one thousand deaths in Malawi in its wake and most of the country submerged. Zambia, which has been supplying maize and sugar to many countries, including Kenya, is now forced to rely on relief.

One would ask: Why the discord in climate patterns in the two regions?

Dr Philip Omondi, a climate change specialist at IGAD, explains that the difference in climate patterns in the regions is caused by changes in climate factors.

He first points out that human activities have emitted more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere creating a blanket over the globe that traps the heat from going back to space.

He further explains that global warming which is taking place at an unprecedented rate, causes the ocean to warm up, evaporate, and go up to the atmosphere forming rain.

“There are global systems that play around with moisture and atmosphere forcing moisture from the ocean to go up then forming rain while at times the system forces it to come down and not form any rain,” explains Omondi.

“In the global patterns, it’s moving in clockwise motion such that over East Africa at one point it’s going up with moisture while in southern Africa it goes down,” he adds.

He lists ocean heat and acidification, sea level rise and glaciers, extreme events like cyclones, heatwaves, drought, heavy precipitation, and cold waves as some of the climate indicators. The scientist further mentions the El Nino and La Nina phenomena as other factors contributing to the variation in climate patterns in the two regions.

“Particularly when we have El Nino, it causes moisture over eastern Africa to go up becoming wet as moisture in southern Africa goes down and becomes dry. The reverse motion called La Nina causes low motion in Eastern Africa as it goes up in Southern Africa,” Omondi says.

El Nino and La Nina are opposite phases of a natural climate pattern across the tropical oceans that swing back and forth every 3-7 years.

All the effects explain the climate conditions in South Africa where the region is currently facing extreme environmental and humanitarian crises as severe drought has taken hold.

This began in October 2023, when the rising temperature and severe lack of precipitation intensified in Botswana expanding progressively across Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and some parts of the Zambezi basin and southern Madagascar. 

Consequently, the effects have caused above-average rainfall in eastern parts of Africa with Kenya and its neighbouring countries bearing the brunt of the deluge.

Dr Omondi adds that the reason why the wet and dry conditions caused by the phenomena normally don’t last forever.

He mentions another key factor: The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). This is an irregular oscillation of sea surface temperature that causes the western Indian Ocean to become warmer during its positive phase and then colder than the eastern part of the ocean in the negative phase. 

“When the wind is bringing moisture into our space and the upward motion due to the global heat is going up then we tend to have abnormal wetness like the current situation because the Indian dipole is positive. The two systems are acting against us pumping water from the ocean,” he says.

To enhance weather observation and increase data analysis, the Kenya Meteorological Department has adopted the use of weather balloons which helps to measure temperature above sea level.

Still, the El Nino and La Nina phenomena have highly affected soil moisture and vegetation in South Africa and East Africa.

Meanwhile, floods have swept away almost all vegetation, including food crops. The country has not fully embraced rainwater harvesting techniques, leaving a huge amount of the precious commodity flow into the rivers and into the lakes and ocean.

This is what has led to another challenge, where parts such as the Upper Tana have suffered poor soil health due to the loamy top the soils ending up in Tana River, where it silts, after being washed away by tributaries. (Including Rivers Chania, Thika, Sagana, Mathioya, Athi and Kaiti).

 A similar scenario is witnessed in Western kenya, where Rivers Nzoia, Nyando, Khalaba, Sondu and Yala deposit into Lake Victoria.

According to Michael Orang’i, a Director at Food and Land Use, Kenyans can activate massive rainwater harvesting technologies in reservoirs during this wet season to harness rainwater to grow food in the subsequent dry spell.

However, the government has always had such projects of building large dams to contain the waters which we have seen some burst during this season such as Thiba dam.

Orang’i feels that the government has not strategised well on fund allocation and identified more places for dams and water pans construction.

“It’s a lack of diligent planning and prioritisation. Permanent dams can also be done with dedicated and prioritised plans,” he opines.

To build climate-smart agriculture, Orang’i suggests that the country adopts a climate resilient agriculture, agroforestry, production systems like drought-tolerant crops, fodder preservation techniques, value addition, and alternative feeding during dry seasons.

 Dr Florence Wambugu, director of Africa Harvest, opines that the government could have adopted both immediate and long-term appropriate mitigation measures for agriculture to cushion farmers against the anticipated losses.

“To help cushion farmers from flood losses, the government can invest in improved forecasting and early warning systems, upgrade infrastructure like flood barriers and drainage systems, and expand crop insurance schemes,” she says.

She recommends implementing early mitigation measures such as tree planting initiatives in water catchment areas.