Drought and Its Impacts

Michael Wines had a terrific story in Wednesday’s New York Times on famine in Africa that evokes a point Mickey Glantz makes in his book Climate Affairs. First Glantz:

Closer scrutiny of most famine situations uncovers a multistressed political environment, of which drought was but one factor.

Now Wines:

War wrecked Mozambique’s economy; socialism and plunging copper prices reduced Zambia to penury; Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed after the government seized its richest farms, which were owned by whites.

In Malawi, 20 years of shifting political rule and economic policies have turned an already poor nation into a basket case. The AIDS pandemic – the rate of infection is about 15 percent among all adults, but perhaps 25 percent in Chikwawa – has cut down family breadwinners and left 900,000 children without one or both parents.

Most Malawians survive on plots of a couple of acres, often lacking even oxen for plowing. Irrigation is unheard of, leaving them dependent on good rains for survival.

Lately, rains have been spotty. There were severe hunger crises in 2002 and 2003, and this year’s disaster was brought on when good rains in late 2004 dried up in 2005, just as the corn crop was ripening.

The underlying climate message here is that meteorological “drought” is a normal phenomenon, and the bad shit comes down when it’s overlayed on societies that don’t have the resiliency, for whatever reason, to cope with the bottom quartile of their normal variability – on all time scales.