Africa droughts became more frequent, more intense, and widespread over the last four decades

Africa droughts became more frequent, more intense, and widespread over the last four decades
The Mandrare river, now a dried up river bed, Amboasary Antsimo, Anosy region, Madagascar, September 2021. Credit: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Vast swathes of Africa have been experiencing more frequent and intense episodes of drought since 1983, according to new research carried out by University of Bristol scientists and released today by WaterAid.

The WaterAid-commissioned research, by scientists from the University of Bristol and Cardiff University, found that East Africa, Southern Africa and Central Africa are major hotspots of increasing .

Their analysis shows there has been an increase in the annual number of dry and severely dry months in these African regions, as well as an increase in the percentage of their landmass experiencing drought between 1983–2021.

Some African countries—including South Africa, Namibia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—saw an increase of up to 40% of their landmass impacted by drought in the decade to 2021, compared to three decades ago.

Currently the Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, is in its fifth consecutive failed rainy season since the end of 2020, which has plunged millions of people into severe food insecurity. A famine is now projected for the region, especially in Somalia.

These newly identified drought trends, likely related to , will further exacerbate challenges faced by rural and urban communities across Africa. Urgent action is needed to ensure people have access to food, and decent sanitation now and in the future, WaterAid said.

Using data on population exposure in combination with the drought trends, the team of scientists from Bristol and Cardiff Universities found that the five worst-hit drought countries are Somalia, Sudan, South Africa, South Sudan and Namibia. These dryland countries, already in a state of water scarcity due to their aridity, are getting progressively drier over time which signals alarm bells for these regions in the future, the researchers pointed out.

A concerning trend is also seen in humid areas like DRC, Central African Republic (CAR) and Cameroon, which have been gradually drying over the last four decades. WaterAid today issued a stark warning: although these countries receive high amounts of rainfall each year, their populations may feel greater impacts of drought over the next decade if the current trajectory of drying continues.

The charity's warning comes just days before world leaders meet at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, which will take place from 6 to 18 November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to deliver action on issues critical to addressing the climate emergency and its impacts.

The researchers did, however, offer a silver lining to the problem of the increasing drought trend across Africa; a continent ill-equipped to handle the devastating impacts of climate change affecting a people who have done least to cause it.

Lead Researcher, Dr. Katerina Michaelides, Associate Professor in Dryland Hydrology at the University of Bristol, said, "Our previous research in East Africa points to the importance of heavy rainfall in replenishing the aquifers in dryland regions. So, although there is less rainfall within the main rainy season and droughts are frequent, the fact that rain is more intense may lead to more effective groundwater recharge. Importantly, this sustained water storage under ground could potentially be used for drought mitigation."

Combining their data with maps of major aquifers from the British Geological Survey (BGS) and published data on water storage trends, the team discovered that some of the countries worst hit by drought are actually seeing an increase in groundwater storage over the last few decades despite the increasing drought trend. This surprising finding points to the potential for groundwater to provide a lifeline to drought-hit communities in places like Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Professor Alan MacDonald, BGS Groundwater Resilience Lead, said, "Groundwater is highly resilient to drought, so the potential for groundwater to save and transform lives in Africa is huge. It is crucial this underused resource is developed sustainably so that water reaches the people who need it most. Key to achieving this is the right investment in expertise to map groundwater, drill sustainable wells and find ways to maintain and manage water resources and services."

The research also shows that some countries are exhibiting contrasting trends—with one half of the country trending towards drought with acute water shortages, and the other half getting wetter with more frequent flooding. This is occurring particularly in Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Angola.

Countries in the western Sahel such as Senegal, Burkina Faso and parts of Mali and Niger, actually got wetter over the period 1983–2021, according to the research.

Lead researcher Prof Michael Singer, Cardiff University, said, "This situation of simultaneous flooding and drought in different parts of the same country, as is currently occurring in East Africa, creates immense challenges for both disaster response management and for long-term adaptation to these climate-related hazards."

Madagascar is one of the countries where WaterAid works which the research highlights is experiencing more drought. Although it has humid zones, meaning some of the country is lush and green, it also has arid zones. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, the Grand Sud of Madagascar has the country's lowest water supply coverage and is highly vulnerable to drought. 70% of people in Anosy province have no access to basic drinking water and 50% of the region's population is in need of urgent water, sanitation and hygiene.

Florine Azefotsy, who sells coffee in the village of Manintsevo in Anosy, said, "Our area was once fertile, but due to the lack of rain, it has ceased to be fertile, resulting in famine."

Tim Wainwright, CE of WaterAid in the U.K., said, "Our new research is a warning bell that the dryland regions of Africa are heading into worse droughts and even lush, tropical countries, may soon be feeling the effects of drought. People are already dying on the frontline of the climate crisis due to a lack of food and clean water—the world can and must turn that deadly tide. World leaders meeting in Egypt should feel the weight of this responsibility on their shoulders."

He added, "Clean, safe water and sanitation helps communities and whole countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and build resilience against future shocks. It means people can stay disease free, go to school, earn a living, and be more self-reliant. It also helps tackle the devastating gender inequality which sees women and girls disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, because they normally bear the brunt of collecting water."

To bring governments, donors and development banks together with the , WaterAid set up the Resilient Water Accelerator (RWA) with partners including the African Development Bank Group.

The RWA was set up under The Sustainable Markets Initiative founded by HM The King Charles III in his former role as HRH The Prince of Wales. The aim of RWA is to lay the groundwork for large scale projects that are interesting for the private sector to invest in, to get those water reserves to millions of people's homes.

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