Photograph: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
The devastating drought in the Horn of Africa would not have happened without the human impact of the climate crisis, new science has shown.
The drought has directly affected about 50 million people in the Horn of Africa and another 100 million in the wider area. About 20 million people are at risk of severe food insecurity and potentially famine.
The region has experienced its worst drought in 40 years since October 2020, with extended drought conditions punctuated by short, heavy rains that often led to flash flooding. There have been five consecutive seasons of below normal rainfall.
At least 4.35 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and at least 180,000 refugees have fled Somalia and South Sudan to drought-stricken Kenya and Ethiopia.
According to a study by the World Weather Attribution group of scientists released on Thursday, the ongoing drought would not have happened without human actions that have changed the climate.
This is because a lack of rainfall, but also higher temperatures driven by global warming have made the region’s soil and grassland much drier than they normally would be, increasing the evaporation of moisture from the land and plants.
The study found that recent rainy conditions would not have led to droughts in a world that was 1.2°C colder and that, by a conservative estimate, climate change had made droughts like the current one about 100 times worse. likely to occur.
Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for climate change and the environment at Imperial College London, said: ‘This study powerfully demonstrates that droughts are much more than just a lack of rain and that “The impacts of climate change strongly depend on how vulnerable we are. One of the main findings of the recently published summary report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that we are much more vulnerable than we thought.”
Low rainfall and high temperatures in the Horn of Africa would also have been less severe without the impacts of the climate crisis, the scientists said. But their study also found that climate change was increasing rainfall at certain times of the year.
In the study region – southern Ethiopia, southern Somalia and eastern Kenya – rainfall is normally concentrated in two seasons: long rains from March to May, when most of the annual rainfall occurs, and a further period of short rains, from October to December, with less intense and more variable rainfall.
The long rains are now drying up under the influence of the climate crisis, the study found, with low rainfall this season now twice as likely as before, but the short rain season is getting wetter.
Joyce Kimutai, principal meteorologist and climate scientist at the Kenya Meteorological Department, said: “The results of this study show that frequent multi-year droughts, combined with extreme temperatures in the main rainy season, will have a serious impact on food security and human health in the Horn of Africa as the climate continues to warm.
The researchers emphasized that food shortages and the potential for famine have never just been a result of climate, but also how vulnerable people are and what resources they have to withstand the impacts.
Cheikh Kane, climate resilience policy adviser at the Red Cross and Red Crescent Climate Center said: “People in the Horn of Africa are no strangers to droughts, but the duration of this event has taken people beyond their ability to cope. Five consecutive seasons of below-normal rainfall combined with rain-dependent livelihoods and multipliers of vulnerabilities such as conflict and state fragility have created a humanitarian disaster.
The study was conducted by 19 researchers as part of the work of the World Weather Attribution group, which brings together scientists from many countries and regions, including the UK, US, Europe and Africa, using established models and techniques to determine whether events can be linked to the impacts of the climate crisis.