Africa: As El Niño Intensifies Floods and Droughts, Early Action Pays Off

By planning ahead, the World Food Programme and its partners are cushioning the fallout of extreme weather in countries grappling with hunger

In Burundi's southern Rumonge province, Amina Hakizimana escaped the worst of heavy flooding that battered her village late last year, thanks to early warning messages and World Food Programme (WFP) cash allowing her to reinforce her home.

More than 2,000 kilometres away in Southern Africa, WFP provided drought-tolerant seeds, fertiliser and boreholes to Zimbabwean farmers like Ledinah Muzamba, who are weathering one of the most punishing droughts in decades. And a hemisphere away, a WFP-supported protective wall saved villagers and crops from deadly flash floods that decimated parts of Afghanistan.

All three examples capture the sharply contrasting faces of the climate crisis and El Niño - a natural warming of the central and eastern Pacific that can change weather worldwide - and ways to better anticipate its fallout.

Nearly a year since it arrived, this latest edition of El Niño, along with climate change, has dealt a devastating blow to some of the world's hungriest and most fragile communities. But El Niño's footprint has been mitigated in cases where people and governments receive the tools, training, and knowledge to prepare for extreme weather events well in advance.

"We know the likely impacts of El Niño and La Niña from the past, so we can imagine what will happen in the future," says WFP Jesse Mason, who heads WFP's Anticipatory Action programmes, allowing people and governments to protect themselves before climate impacts arrive.

Those lessons are all the more relevant today, as El Niño weakens. After a 'neutral phase,' many experts forecast El Niño's extreme opposite, La Niña - cooling Pacific temperatures - will likely arrive later this year, upending weather patterns once again. Colombia, for one, is already experiencing an unusually early and heavy rainy season. With the climate crisis worsening weather shocks globally, such events are becoming increasingly normal.

Not only do early action and planning save governments and humanitarians millions of dollars otherwise spent responding to weather disasters after they happen, WFP's Mason says, but they build resilience to future ones.

"We need to do more for predictable emergencies like this," he adds. "There's no reason to be getting caught unprepared."

Early action payoffs

Last year alone, WFP protected more than 4 million people in 36 countries through proactive initiatives allowing them to better anticipate and act ahead of likely weather shocks. Those numbers were sharply up from 2022, with plans to scale up further in the coming years.

In East Africa, where deadly floods have decimated agricultural heartlands across a swathe of countries, WFP is reaching more than 200,000 people with immediate food and nutrition assistance along with preemptive cash transfers and early warnings.

"I've lived here for six years - I've never seen such heavy rainfall," says Amina Hakizimana in Burundi, one of the countries hardest hit by the floods.

"Fortunately, we were warned and assisted in advance," she says of nearly US$80 in WFP-supplied cash that she spent to reinforce her home on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Seasonal forecasting

Before the rains hit, WFP and the Burundi Red Cross identified risks and preparedness actions in vulnerable communities. We also provided equipment and training to the Geographical Institute of Burundi on ways to strengthen its seasonal forecasting and spread early warning messages to local communities.

"Thanks to early warning weather forecasts, we can predict whether the rains are going to be heavier or lighter in the coming periods," says the Institute's Ezekiel Kayoya.

Ahead of heavy rains in Somalia, WFP provided preemptive cash transfers to tens of thousands of at-risk people, along with early warning messages via radio and mobile phone to nearly 2 million more.

"We listened to the messages and prepared before the floods came, to get away from the waters," says Ruqiyo Muhumed Mohamud, who lives in a camp for displaced people in the central Somali town of Beledweyne.

She also bought food with roughly US$70 in WFP cash. "This will be enough for me and my family during the flood season," she adds.

From floods to droughts

As heavy rains wash across East Africa, Southern Africa is battling one of its worst droughts in years, prompting Zimbabwe's government, for one, to declare a state of disaster.

Southern African governments have acted ahead to mitigate the damage, says WFP expert Mason. "Every government has a national meteorological service - they know how important weather is," he says. "WFP's value added is connecting that to vulnerable people."

In Zimbabwe's western Binga district, for example, WFP is providing drought-tolerant seeds, training communities on how to use climate information, and drilling boreholes to supply crops, livestock and people with water.

"We will be able to grow gardens in our community and also have water for our cattle," says Binga farmer Ledinah Muzamba. "We have been traveling long distances to access water for our cattle - many kilometres."

Climate change

El Niño's fallout and the impacts of worsening climate change, are not limited to Africa. Heavy rains in Afghanistan have triggered flash floods in recent weeks that have killed hundreds and displaced thousands. In the northern province of Baghlan, one of the worst affected, Raima lost her grandson and livestock to the roaring floodwaters.

"The floods left us with nothing," she says, weeping.

Today, Raima - who like many Afghans only goes by a single name - counts among thousands receiving WFP's fortified biscuits and cash to tide them by, along with free bread from bakeries supplied with WFP flour.

So does mother of six Lailoma, whose family barely survived the disaster. They sleep in a graveyard on a nearby hill, above the deluge, along with their only possession, a rescued kitten.

We only have these walls left," Lailoma says, showing a visitor the remains of her home.

The picture is different in places where WFP was able to act ahead. A nearby village remains intact thanks to a flood protection wall, saving crops and hundreds of families.

La Niña next?

In Latin America and the Caribbean - which last year witnessed both a prolonged drought in places like Bolivia and Colombia, and intense rainfall and floods in others - WFP worked with governments and partners to strengthen early warning mechanisms and to develop forward-thinking action plans.

In parched Guatemala and Nicaragua, we delivered drought-tolerant seeds and training to smallholder farmers. In flood-hit Ecuador, WFP supported the Government's scale-up of its social protection system and collaborated with Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities to enhance their climate resilience, allowing them to develop their own adaptation strategies. Farther south, WFP assisted Peruvian authorities in positioning humanitarian goods ahead of anticipated heavy rains.

More weather shocks may be on their way, if La Niña forecasts prove right.

"Now we're educating people about what's likely to come - and make sure we have the tools and processes in place to be able to act before," Mason says.

After drought, he adds, Southern Africa for one could see floods with this latest weather event. "In a perfect world, it would be extra rain, but not too much," Mason adds. "But we'll be prepared for the worst."

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