MOMBASA, Kenya (AP) — Surrounded by miles of dry land and the remains of his starving cattle, Daniel Lepaine is a concerned man. Dozens of his goats in Ngong, a town in southern Kenya, have died after three years of harrowing drought in the east and the Horn of Africa. The rest are on the verge of starvation if the rain continues to fail.
“If this drought continues, I will have no livelihood and nothing for my family,” lamented Lepaine. “We pray hard for the rain.”
But a few thousand miles south, communities are facing the opposite problem.
Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which has already killed 21 and displaced thousands more in Madagascar and Mozambique, will make landfall in Mozambique again on Friday. The country is already suffering from Freddy’s first assault last month and severe flooding before that.
Meteorologists told The Associated Press that the uneven and devastating distribution of water across Africa’s east coast states is caused by natural weather systems and exacerbated by human-induced climate change with cyclones sucking up water that would otherwise be destined for countries further north.
“The trend has always been two contrasting weather systems,” said Evans Mukolwe, the former head of Kenya’s meteorological department. “Intensified cyclones in the southern Africa region are translating into drought on the eastern side, including the Horn of Africa.”
The region’s current drought began in late 2020, when the short rainy season in the region failed. Meteorologists traced the lack of rain to the onset of La Nina in late summer of the same year, the natural and cyclical weather event that cools sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, with knock-on effects for the African continent and the rest of the world . .
La Nina, along with El Nino and the neutral state, is called ENSO, which stands for El Nino Southern Oscillation. These events have the greatest natural effects on climate and can mitigate or amplify the effects of human-induced climate change.
“There is a connection between the El Nino Southern Oscillation, rainfall patterns and drought in East and South Africa,” says climate scientist Marjahn Finlayson. La Nina means that East Africa would be “ready for drier conditions, while Southern Africa would be more prepared for wetter and more humid conditions.”
When it comes to tropical cyclones, ENSO is a big factor in where they form and end, said Anne-Claire Fontaine, a research associate with the World Meteorological Organization’s tropical cyclone program.
El Nino favors tropical cyclones that form over the central basin of the Indian Ocean and then move toward the south pole, Fontaine said. “While La Nina favors tropical cyclone formation over the eastern to central part of the basin and zonal tracks running west to southwest” where it enters southern Africa.
The damaging La Nina was declared Thursday by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which meteorologists say could mean better news for the continent.
“It means we’re going into an ENSO neutral period until about June or so,” Finlayson said, when El Nino is expected to take over — potentially taking the drought away.
“The end of La Nina means El Nino rains. But this may not happen right away. For Africa, El Nino rains are normally expected in the short rainy seasons that run from October to December,” Mukolwe said.
But there’s still the effect of climate change, which exacerbates cyclones and droughts by making them longer, more intense and more severe, according to the United Nations Weather Bureau. Studies dating back to the mid-1980s suggest that there is a clear relationship between warmer oceans and the intensity and number of cyclones.
According to a UN report, Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events such as floods, cyclones, droughts, forest fires and sandstorms, as it has less capacity to prepare for natural disasters. The continent only contributes about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but it suffers disproportionately.
Southern Africa is still in the throes of cyclone season, with severe flooding killing dozens, destroying homes and uprooting communities. Since 2019, the region has been most affected by 20 cyclones. A scientific analysis of the region’s cyclones last year found that climate change was making tropical storms more damaging and intense.
Meanwhile, communities in the East and the Horn of Africa, now in their sixth consecutive dry season, are experiencing massive losses. Authorities say 11 million head of livestock and iconic animal species have died as a result of the drought, leaving herding families in abject poverty. More than 6,000 wild animals had been lost to the drought in Kenya alone by mid-February, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service, including elephants, giraffes and wildebeests.
But Finlayson is cautiously optimistic for the east of the continent in the short to medium term.
“Predictions are that we should expect a strong El Nino to last from June to August,” she said, which would improve conditions on Africa’s east coast. “It’s likely we’ll see those effects in the boreal fall, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
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