Disaster Watch

Is the drought to end with a disastrous splash?

Two sides of same coin
El Nino.jpg

Judged by what is happening in other regions across the globe, southern Africa is in danger of its worst drought in 50 years ending in floods, with disastrous consequences in the near future.

In February this year we wrote: “While in the grip of the worst drought in 50 years, South and southern Africa might have to brace themselves for disaster conditions of a worse kind towards the end of this year.”

Judged on what is presently happening in some South American countries and states like Texas in the United States, the likelihood of such a natural disaster being experienced in our part of the world, even before the end of this year, is increasing.

Last week Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have been struck by widespread flooding in the southern zone. Twelve people have been killed and thousands of inhabitants evacuated as more rains were expected. The storms brought nearly five times more rain on the central Andes mountains than they typically get in the entire month of April, and flooding interrupted the supply of potable water to nearly 4.5 million people in Santiago alone.

Also last week seven people in Houston, Texas, died in flood-related incidents and thousands of houses were damaged. During the previous week record downpours caused flash floods in Las Vegas, endangering lives, and in Haiti the Fouyone River burst its banks, flooding the city of Léogâne,

Influence of El Niño

Both the record-setting drought and the flooding, some of which already occurred in December last year, are linked to the El Niño phenomenon, originating in the Pacific when ocean-warming occurs from time to time.

In January this year the US’ National Public Radio (NPR) reported that the world is in the middle of a big El Niño that roughly began in May 2015 and will continue for at least several more months this year, and that it “has already been linked to a series of weather-related disasters: Massive flooding in Paraguay. Drought in Ethiopia. Another looming food crisis in Madagascar and Zimbabwe.”

Michel Jarraud, the chief of the World Meteorological Organisation, a subdivision of the UN, explained in another article that “severe droughts and devastating flooding being experienced throughout the tropics and subtropical zones bear the hallmark of this El Niño.”

The NPR report stated that “El Niño conditions produce a well-documented shift in seasonal weather patterns. Over a roughly 14-month period that often starts in May, certain regions of the world receive far less rainfall than usual, while others receive far more;” and:

“What's more, the stronger the El Niño, the more pronounced the effect – and therefore the more accurately scientists can predict the impacts. So this current, extra-powerful El Niño has offered governments and aid agencies a rare chance to prepare.”  

How prepared are we?

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has been monitoring the El Niño forecasts to identify places where a natural disaster might hit so they can send aid money proactively.

The WFP has set up pilot efforts in five countries, including Zimbabwe, where El Niño-related weather could create food shortages. This specifically caters for food, which is the drought side of the El Niño coin.

It is, however, the other side of the coin to which southern Africa might be most exposed in the months to come.

In September last year, in an article about the state of disrepair of the Kariba Dam, we warned that southern Africa might be facing the prospect of an “inland tsunami” in the event of flooding. That danger seems to have become bigger.

South Africa might also face a problem similar to the present one in some South American countries – getting potable water to people.  

A report published in November 2015 found that the country’s shoddily maintained water infrastructure sees 37% of available drinkable water going to waste through leaky pipes. It is an open question whether the network will be able to handle the pressure that will come with a flood.

Individual households

An unfamiliar, for South African, season of floods might also catch many individual households unprepared.

According to a January report in the Los Angeles Times, “for the several months, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have sounded a lot more like salesmen than bureaucrats. And their sales pitch for flood insurance – which harps on the dangers of El Niño while espousing the benefits of protecting your property –  has largely worked.”

But even there only 9% of homeowners have flood insurance.

by Piet Coetzer

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