Human activities are responsible for the devastating drought currently plaguing the Horn of Africa, new scientific evidence shows.
About 50 million people in the Horn of Africa and 100 million in neighboring regions have been directly affected by the drought. The situation is critical, with up to 20 million people facing acute food insecurity and potential famine.
Since October 2020, the region has been experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. The prolonged dry spells, coupled with brief and heavy downpours causing flash floods, have characterized the crisis. The rainfall levels have remained below normal for five consecutive seasons.
With five consecutive years of insufficient rainfall, the region is facing its most severe drought in four decades.
Over 4.35 million people require immediate humanitarian assistance, while 180,000 refugees have fled Somalia and South Sudan to seek refuge in Kenya and Ethiopia, both of which are also grappling with the drought.
According to a rapid analysis released today by an international team of climate scientists from the World Weather Attribution group shows that the region's agricultural drought, which has left over 20 million people at risk of acute food insecurity, would not have occurred without the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.
The study found that while climate change has not had much impact on the total annual rainfall in the area, higher temperatures have significantly increased evaporation from soil and plants, making dry soil much more likely.
This effect has resulted in widespread crop failures and livestock deaths in the past two years.
Joyce Kimutai, Principal Meteorologist and Climate Scientist at the Kenya Meteorological Department explained that the findings of the study show that frequent multi-years droughts compounded with heat extremes, in the main rainy season, will severely impact food security and human health in the Horn of Africa as the climate continues to warm.
“It is time we act and engage differently,” she noted.
To quantify the impact of climate change on this drought, the scientists analyzed weather data and computer model simulations, comparing the climate today with that of the past.
They found that climate change has made agricultural drought in the region approximately 100 times more likely.
The scientists also discovered that climate change is affecting rainfall periods in opposite ways, with the long rains becoming drier, and the short rains becoming wetter.
“Rising temperatures caused by climate change have been a significant factor in the agricultural drought, as they have significantly increased evapotranspiration,” said Izidine Pinto a researcher in weather and climate extremes.
The analysis indicated that while the consecutive failed rainy seasons and high temperatures, combined with existing vulnerabilities such as conflict, state fragility, and poverty, have contributed to the devastating human impacts of the drought, climate change remains the necessary factor for its occurrence.
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Addressing the root causes of vulnerability and increasing investment in adaptation measures that are robust to both dry and wet extremes is critical to avoid future extreme weather events from becoming disasters.
Cheikh Kane, Climate Resilience Policy Advisor at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, emphasized the importance of taking action to address the root causes of vulnerability and increase investment in adaptation measures that are robust to both dry and wet extremes, which are the norm in this region.
"We need to reinforce the things that are working, including formal and informal social protection mechanisms, early warning systems, and effective drought management, while looking for ways to reduce the drivers of vulnerability, including state fragility and conflict, environmental degradation, rain-dependent livelihoods, poverty and marginalisation," he said.
The scientists analyzed weather data and computer model simulations to compare the climate as it is today, after about 1.2 degrees Celsius of global warming since the late 1800s, with the climate of the past, following peer-reviewed methods.
They found that rising temperatures, driven by climate change, have also been a major factor behind the agricultural drought, as they have significantly increased evapotranspiration, a measure of how much water can evaporate from soil and plants.
Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London said: "This study shows very strongly that drought is much more than just the lack of rain and that the impacts of climate change strongly depend on how vulnerable we are."
The current conditions in the region are classified as ‘exceptional drought’ on the US Drought Monitor scale; without the effect of climate change on temperatures, conditions in the region would have been normal or ‘abnormally dry’, the level below drought.
The study was conducted by 19 researchers from around the world, including scientists from universities and meteorological agencies in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, the United States of America, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom.