East Africa is currently in the grips of El Niño, a climate phenomenon characterised by the periodic warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, leading to heavy rains during the months of October, November, and December. Increased rainfall highlights the region’s need for resilient structures in the face of climate change. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) reports that October to December 2023 is predicted to have a higher prevalence of above-average rainfall, constituting between 20 to 70 percent of annual total rainfall across most of East Africa.

The potential fallout could be immense. Since infrastructure in the region is inadequate to retain, store, and redistribute water, El Niño is likely to directly impact 1.7 million people and many others indirectly, flooding agricultural land, displacing vulnerable populations through mudslides, and destroying critical infrastructure across and within urban areas.

The economic and social inequalities that are rife across East Africa make it difficult for vulnerable people to access adequate shelter, food, and water. A resilient structure needs to be put in place to address these challenges at both national and regional levels.

Workers in Nakuru, Kenya unclog drainage ditches in preparation for the torrential rainfalls caused by El Niño, 22 September 2023. Image: IMAGO/SOPA

Impacts for Agriculture and the Ecosystem.

El Niño will likely have a negative impact on agriculture, where a majority of East Africans earn their livelihoods. IGAD weather predictions show early rainfall in eastern Kenya, southern Somalia, and eastern Tanzania, coupled with an average or delayed onset of rainfall over parts of northern Somalia, western Kenya, Uganda, southern South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and north-western Tanzania. Variations in rainfall can increase yields in some instances, but overall have a destabilising effect on both food production as well as distribution.

Rainfall variability across East Africa affects agriculture directly and indirectly. Combined with climate change effects, the region is likely to experience more of these challenges in both the medium and long term. The East African ecosystem will face increased mudslides and wetland destruction resulting from the overflow of water across rivers and streams.

Ecosystem disruption hinders conservation efforts for wildlife both on land and in the water-logged areas, which compounds the challenge brought by biodiversity losses. In addition, El Niño will likely impact water resource management, which has a direct effect on the livelihoods of communities whose livelihoods depend on water through fishing and other related activities as well as urban areas that will be stressed by poor drainage facilities.

The Horn of Africa has been dealing with severe water shortages in recent years. El Niño is set to make it worse. Photo: RLS Southern Africa

In terms of public health, the El Niño impact is likely to be felt with the increased spread of diseases transmitted by mosquitos such as malaria and dengue. Increased spread of diseases is likely to further constrain the ability of governments to provide quality health services to the people considering the financial and human resource constraints.

Early Warnings and Infrastructure Investment

The East African region has early warning systems at national levels supported by the National Meteorological Services (NMS) in each partner state. The NMS also shares information and uses IGAD expertise to enhance their early warning systems, as seen with the current El Niño.

In Tanzania, the government initiated the National El Niño Contingency Plan and Anticipatory Action that facilitates coordination, precaution communications, and assessment, emergency shelters, and camps management in response to the anticipated disaster. In Uganda, the NMS advised the agriculture and food sector, fisheries subsector, disaster risk mitigation sector, and water and energy sector. Nevertheless, the NMS in East Africa lacks the necessary infrastructure to provide effective and comprehensive early warning information for disaster risk mitigation.

Building resilient structures to sustainably tackle El Niño therefore necessitates a clear strategy, programmes, and action plans for the short, medium, and long term.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) is implementing a project in East Africa to strengthen regional institutions’ ability to provide impact-based, people-centred forecasts and warnings tailored to local and national circumstances. It is important for the region to build on such projects and complement them with other initiatives, especially for disaster response, mitigation, and adaptation. Local communities, especially those in vulnerable areas, must be at the centre of response, mitigation, and adaptation initiatives, as they are likely to be most affected by El Niño and potential future disaster caused by climate change.

The challenge of disaster prediction and management goes beyond the capacity constraints of the NMS, and also encompasses issues of governance and public services at both national and local government levels across the region. Since the potential effects of El Niño cut across different sectors, it is imperative for countries to coordinate at a high level, working together with actors such as civil society and development partners to improve surveillance, reporting, communication of early warning systems, and response strategies.

Kenya, for instance, established a “National El Niño taskforce” to support a national contingency plan and activated a national mass communication, plan bringing together different actors to respond to the likely disaster. Such a multiagency collaborative structure requires adequate funding and capacity building across different levels.

Mean ocean surface temperature has never been higher. This is driving a more brutal El Niño cycle. Photo: RLS Southern Africa

Drafting a Comprehensive Plan

In the short term, addressing floods in both rural and urban areas should be prioritised by establishing rapid response teams. In urban areas, we need more investment in drainage systems and aid for the urban poor often living in slums. Rapid urbanisation across East Africa has led to the growth of slums with poor water and sanitation facilities. Communication between early warning systems needs to be synergised with district-level authorities and communities across neighbouring countries, which in itself calls for collaboration among the different disaster response actors across borders.

In the medium term, governments should enhance collaboration among the different ministries, departments, and agencies. There is a need for government and development partners to build response and mitigation capacity, raise awareness at both regional and national levels regarding El Niño and climate change vulnerabilities, as well as build resilient structures to address the potential impacts.

As climate change accelerates and brings more natural disasters to the region, we need an ambitious approach that brings together all national and regional actors to build long-term resilience mechanisms.

Collaboration should be enhanced at both national and regional levels through working together with key stakeholders, especially development partners, aid agencies, and other non-governmental organisations. Government ministries need to share information and make use of the early warning systems in a coordinated way so that communities receive the most relevant information for their regions in a timely way.

A multi-actor and multi-sectoral approach is key to addressing El Niño. Non-state actors, especially development partners, need to support countries and communities to build their own resilience in both the medium and long term. Building resilience should start with an all-encompassing early warning mechanism, which means going beyond the issue of warnings and actually following up with the necessary steps at different sectoral levels. The resilience-building mechanism should therefore aim at an integrated approach covering key sectors such as agriculture and fisheries, water and health, energy and public infrastructure, as well as cross-border initiatives such as the Nile Basin Initiative for responding to future disasters.

The African Union set up the Multi-Hazard Early Warning and Early Action System (MHEWAS) during the thirty-fifth Assembly of AU Heads of State and Government in February 2022. MHEWAS is an important initiative, as it provides a comprehensive early warning system covering different hazards to allow communities to take preventative measures and significantly reduce losses in case of disasters. Such measures at the continental level require not only financing but also collaboration and technical support for effective implementation at the national level. The support should aim at bringing together the various government agencies in the region to work together with NGOs and other actors to facilitate a coordinated, resilient structure.

As climate change accelerates and brings more natural disasters to the region, we need an ambitious approach that brings together all national and regional actors to build long-term resilience mechanisms. These should be approached both in terms of policy and institutions as well as practical, on-the-ground interventions.

The policy and institutional approach should look at reforms that protect the most vulnerable, strengthening response structures, and building institutional and human resource capacities for mitigation and adaptation measures. The practical interventions should constitute building up land use and water management facilities such as storage infrastructure, roads and bridges, irrigation schemes, and valley dams to act as reservoirs for regional food security at both national and regional levels.