Cyclone-hit Mozambique highlights the need for major improvements in food security

By Monica Gitau - 2 May 2019 at 5:31 pm
Cyclone-hit Mozambique highlights the need for major improvements in food security

Just over a month since areas of the country were laid waste by Cyclone Idai—the deadliest cyclone to hit southern Africa in more than a century— a new natural disaster has struck Mozambique. Cyclone Kenneth made landfall with wind speeds of 220km per hour, killing hundreds and devastating infrastructure, buildings and crops. It’s the first time in recorded history that Mozambique has been hit by two cyclones in the same season, and the first time that a cyclone tracked so far north in the African nation.

With rain continuing to fall, fears are rising that flood waters could make a disastrous situation even worse, increasing the likelihood of an imminent health crisis and further isolating communities in remote locations. Aerial photos released by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) showed that some villages had been entirely wiped out.

Hundreds of lives have already been lost and tens of thousands more people displaced, prompting international aid agencies to express concern about Mozambique’s worsening situation. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has designated it a level-three emergency and is preparing to send food aid to 1.7 million Mozambicans as part of an international response to the crisis.

Rise in adverse weather events to hit developing nations hard

Yet, more worrying than the short-term effects of these twin cyclones in Southern Africa is the fear that catastrophic events like this may begin to occur with greater frequency as the full impacts of climate change become manifest.

While it’s hard to say with certainty that this particular combination of weather events is a direct result of climate change, there’s little doubt that warming waters and rising sea levels are impacting the formation of cyclones in the Indian Ocean. UN emergency relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock, described the situation in Mozambique as a ‘climate-related disaster’, while the organisation’s head, Antonio Guterres, has commented that the devastation wrought by the two cyclones rang ‘yet another alarm bell’ about climate change.

Rising sea levels will make coastal areas all over the world more vulnerable to inundation – a development that could have particularly devastating consequences for developing countries like Mozambique as well as neighbouring Malawi and Zimbabwe. Regular flooding is likely to place impossible pressures on fragile socio-political systems, depleting food supplies and overloading precarious health-care networks struggling to cope with the proliferation of water-borne diseases like cholera.

Putting food security for millions at risk

In Mozambique’s case, even if post-cyclone outbreaks of cholera and malaria can be contained, the substantial disruption to the country’s food resources won’t be resolved overnight. The latest disaster has hit the country especially hard, exacerbating Mozambique’s existing food insecurity, washing away crops just before harvest and destroying huge swaths of agricultural land – this in a region in which millions of people were already living hand to mouth.

It’s thought that around 400,000 hectares of crops have been destroyed, primarily in the central agricultural provinces of Manica and Sofala, which together produce about 25 percent of the country’s national grain output. Unless farmers can replant quickly, the potential for acute food shortages in the months ahead is very real. The World Food Organisation (WFO) has estimated that US$140 million of international funding will be required to deal with the emergency over the next three months.

Long-term planning is an essential part of the response

But, while humanitarian aid, including quick-growing seeds, is urgently needed to compensate for the crops lost to Idai and Kenneth, longer-term solutions are crucial to help bolster Africa’s defences against food insecurity. Roughly 26% of sub-Saharan Africa’s adult population suffers from severe food insecurity, a problem which will only worsen as the climate shifts.

These innovations may take a number of forms, from bundling seeds with insurance to implementing new technologies that reduce spoilage and increase crop yields through the application of ‘precision agriculture’. The agricultural technology sector is booming, and includes promising inventions from drones that can spot problems with crops before they become significant, to an app allowing farmers to apply exactly the right amount of fertilizer to their fields, drastically improving yields, to artificial intelligence which can distinguish between weeds and crops, permitting farmers to fine-tune their use of pesticides.

These creative approaches will not only help countries like Mozambique ramp up food production following a disaster like the recent cyclones, but could offer assistance to farmers around the world trying to satisfy the demands of a growing global population. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has estimated that with the world’s population on track to hit more than 9 billion by 2050, food production will need to be scaled up by 70 percent from present levels. In sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is particularly dire: food production must rise 60 percent over the next 15 years.

Inspiring big changes for the good of the planet

It sometimes takes the threat of a looming disaster to fuel big changes. Amid the tragic devastation caused by Mozambique’s two recent cyclones – as well as the broader pressure the effects of climate change are exerting on African farmers – some schemes are already creating a genuine sense of energy across the continent.

In April the World Bank unveiled a group of 14 innovators in Kenya who were among the first beneficiaries of an internationally backed ‘One Million Farmer Initiative’ designed to drive growth and encourage disruptors. Under the scheme, which has a particular focus on smallholders and women in agriculture, farmers pioneering innovative agritech are eligible for competitive grants totalling $100 million. Nairobi is also set to host Africa’s first agritech innovation incubator, to be built over the next three years.

The flooded fields and washed-away crops which Mozambique has been left with in the wake of Cyclones Idai and Kenneth have underscored the grave challenges which climate change is increasingly posing for African agriculture. The continent’s willingness to embrace new ways of farming is its best hope of overcoming these threats.

Monica Gitau

Monica Gitau

Monica is a freelance journalist based in Kenya

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