Drought, Food, Africa

In keeping with Kevin Vranes’ dictum that “it’s up to the bloggers to highlight the papers that didn’t make Science, Nature, JAMA or NEJM” because those half-wits in the mainstream media won’t, here’s an interesting paper on climate variability and food in Africa.

Leif Christian Stige of the University of Oslo and colleagues used crop production records and satellite data to conclude that reduced food production during El Niño years in Africa is the equivalent of “the nutritional requirements of (approximately) 20 million people”. Yowza. Kinda puts our worries about the New Mexico ski season this year into perspective. The big loser is corn in southern Africa, something documented a dozen years ago by Mark Cane. So the broad story here is already well known. It’s the 20 million number that jumped out at me.

Stige et al. spin a global warming tale to go along with this:

Results suggest reduced African food production if the global climate changes toward more El Niño-like conditions, as most climate models predict.

As I’ve written before, I don’t think the science is there to head very far down the global warming->El Niño path. But regardless of those details, there’s something we clearly do know about drought variability in Africa and elsewhere. Regardless of the imprint left by anthropogenic climate change, we know there is drought variability – wet times and dry times and then wet again and then dry again.

The real damage (see here for a longer discussion of this) happens when people don’t pay attention during the wet times to the fact that it’ll get dry soon enough. I recently read a great book chapter by Mickey Glantz entitled “drought follows the plow” (apparently there’s a whole book) that discusses what happened in the Sahel beginning in the late 1960s. Glantz argues that people moved north into the southern edge of the Sahara during the unusually wet 1950s and ’60s. When the pendulum swung back to dry in 1968, they were screwed.

It’s not unlike people building growing cities in the paths of hurricanes, and then being surprised when the waves wash over them. Climate change may be one variable here, and is clearly worth paying attention to, but changing societal vulnerability dominates the risk.


  1. How’s that Sahara doing? I remember in late 70s and early 80s reading how it was going to cover Lake CHad and go from the Congo to the Med? SHould be down to the Cape by now, no?

  2. Interesting John. Somewhat on topic I’ve been following the work of the Sasakawa Africa Association for quite awhile now, they seem to be having quite some success in increasing crop (maize and other) yields in Africa. You can read some of their reports online at:
    Hopefully the effects of their efforts will make a difference.

  3. How’s the Peace Corps and other NGOs doing working in the Sahel to slow southward desertification, TCO? How’s that going?

    Oh, how’s that economy doing? should have 139M jobs by now, no?

    Plz try harder.



  4. I like John. He’ll kick your *ss on a bike, BTW. And you know, he’ll at least look at his watch if yer boy StevieMac asks what time it is.

    But let’s not detract from argumentation like Dow 36,000.



  5. Yo, TCO:

    can you drop the preamble to your initials? This is a family blog. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.



  6. Hey TCO and Dano, good to see ya guys. I posted a link hoping to generate a bit of real discussion. Didn’t exactly work, but I still think it’s interesting to try to figure out ways to increase crop yields in much of Africa. I have read quite a few claims that people there are starving (able to get less calories than they need) mainly due to political reasons, and I think there is some merit to a lot of those positions. However, when I look at the actual numbers, those positions only seem to hold true in rare (maybe

  7. Argh, I like the blog but can’t find a proper e-mail address.

    trying to post again:

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