Climate change: Floods in East Africa exacerbate food insecurity

By Edward Nyembo

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Posted on June 6, 2023 09:56

Many settlements in Kisoro, southwest Uganda were damaged in floods and landslides caused by heavy rains. ((Photo by Nicholas Kajoba/Anadolu Agency via AFP)

The East Africa region was hit with heavy rains in May, leading to flooding in several countries. In Rwanda, floods killed more than 130 people in north and western provinces while in Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) South Kivu province, floods killed more than 400 people. Events like this could worsen food insecurity, analysts say.

In Uganda, floods swept away a bridge of a highway that connects to western Uganda, one of the country’s main food baskets. The road also connects several borders with neighbouring countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania and DRC. Flooding incidents were also recorded in Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

A long dry spell in several countries, which is becoming frequent in the region due to climate change, has been followed by heavy rainfall. East Africa typically has two rainy seasons every year.

The heavy rainy season starts in October, ending in December, while the little rainy season starts in March and ends in May. But the rainy seasons are increasingly becoming unpredictable: it either doesn’t rain or when it does rain, the rain is heavy leading to flooding which consequently results in fatalities and destruction of properties.

Before 1999, drought in what are normally rainfall months was infrequent, happening once every five or six years, says Chris Funk, Director of the Climate Hazards Center, University of California.

“We are seeing more frequent and extremely dangerous back-to-back failures of these rains,” he wrote, referring to the rainy seasons.

Despite the heavy rains, Daniel Njiwa, who heads regional food trade and resilience at Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) tells The Africa Report that “other [areas] have suffered limited rains,” including areas in South Sudan, northern Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda.

June to September is a dry spell in East Africa. As it has been in the past years, there are already predictions that paint a gloomy picture of the coming months in parts of the east and horn of Africa.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Applications Centre forecast for June to September says there are “higher chances of drier than usual conditions” in the northern parts of the greater Horn of Africa.

Northern Sudan, parts of southern and central to western Ethiopia, central and northern Kenya, central and northern Somalia, and coastal parts of Tanzania have been flagged as those which will be drier than usual.

The main consequence of the unreliable rainfall has been food insecurity in the region. Before the start of the March to May rainy season, many countries were short of food.

Food security

The main consequence of the unreliable rainfall has been food insecurity in the region. Before the start of the March to May rainy season, many countries were short of food. At the end of March, AGRA food security monitor noted that 70.3 million people representing 24% of the total population across six selected eastern Africa countries lacked sufficient food for consumption. The countries include Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda.

AGRA’s Njiwa says that recent floods will worsen the food security situation in the region.

“Poor harvests are expected in many places due to the floods and water stress in some parts of the region,” he says. “The fact that the region is coming from a poor season last year means that stock availability will be super low this year.”

Anticipating low harvests in East Africa, Njiwa points out that Kenya, a major importer of food is already tendering for maize globally. Kenya has gone the extra mile by planning to sign deals with farmers in Zambia to grow maize exclusively for the Kenyan market. However, the deal has been contested by politicians in both Kenya and Zambia.

Poor harvest also impacts prices. The price of maize is averaging $500/mt in Uganda and Tanzania which “means a worse situation for Kenya,” Njiwa says.

Katonga bridge was washed away by rain on 11 May, prompting local officials to divert traffic to a longer and narrow road which slows down the speed at which cars can move. And the road has not reopened. It now takes double time -four hours – for a car to cover a distance of 134km between Kampala and Masaka city because of the diversion. Cargo trucks take as much as eight hours to cover the distance.

Driving inflation

The disruption will have an impact on food such as matooke and Irish potatoes which come from western Uganda, Brian Sserunjogi Makerere, a research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Centre, a think tank in Kampala, tells The Africa Report. Matooke, or the highland banana, is one of Uganda’s staple foods.

“If you have any disruption like the one we are seeing at Katonga Bridge currently, that will have an impact on the cost of food. Traders will use a longer route to access Kampala. That increased cost in transportation is going to be pushed to the consumers of the food,” he says.

Food has been a key driver of inflation in Uganda.

Sserunjogi says the bridge may not impact food prices given that Uganda mainly exports maize to Kenya which comes from the regions whose transportation won’t be affected by the bridge. However, the road remains the only route used by trucks transporting goods from Mombasa to Rwanda, parts of DRC and delivering goods to Kampala from Tanzania and vice versa.

AGRA’s Njiwa says that governments in the region need to stick together and trade easily which will cross border movement of food.

“Sometimes southern African countries have better output to supply the east but policy restrictions just make trade impossible. As we speak both Zambia and Malawi have imposed bans (or restrictions) of export of grains and oilseeds.”

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