2011-08-04 23:06:23A Climate Scientist’s View of a Famine’s Roots -- DOT Earth -- NY Times
John Hartz
John Hartz
August 3, 2011, 5:24 pm

A Climate Scientist’s View of a Famine’s Roots

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times Related article: Amid Famine, Dangers Hinder Aid to Somalia.

Chris Funk, who is in the Climate Hazard Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is affiliated with the U.S. Geological Survey, has a compelling commentary on the roots of the famine in southern Somalia on the Nature Web site under the headline “We Thought Trouble Was Coming” (unfortunately behind the subscription wall).

It describes his research linking a warming Indian Ocean — when combined with La Niña conditions — with reductions in crucial rainfall from March to June in East Africa. But more important, it describes the value of the integrated analysis being done by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, organized by the United States Agency for International Development, to try to cut the chances that a drought like the present one could spawn a famine. If you want to keep track of the drought and food issues in the Horn of Africa, there’s no better starting place than this project’s East Africa Web page.

Funk’s piece asks a vital question: “So what went wrong? Why weren’t the warnings — before and during the drought — enough to avert a food crisis that might turn into famine?”

He notes that politics and the lack of governance are prime drivers of the Somali famine. But he also asserts that over-reliance on the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change analysis of impacts in Africa — which projected more rain in East Africa in a warming world, not less — lulled some agencies into discounting drought risks there. More recently, the Indian Ocean analysis by Funk and a colleague, A. Park Williams, along with other studies, points to drying — and a contribution from human-driven global warming.

Funk says the 2007 projection of wetter conditions led some agencies to plan the expansion of agriculture in the region — plans that could be devastated if drier conditions prevail, as his work implies.

Another problem, he says, is the lack of close-focus climate analysis in the region. This is a longstanding issue that was also emphasized in “The Climate Divide,” our 2007 special report in The Times on the outsize vulnerability to climate change in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally, he writes, the combination of rapid population growth and low agricultural productivity in the region has greatly amplified the potential for starvation.

Combine all these elements with the drying linked to recent substantial warming of Indian Ocean waters — which Funk and other researchers attribute to human-driven global warming — and you will have more of what’s unfolding in Somalia now. Click here for a Google Scholar sift of research on the climate connection.

He says improved climate information, increased agricultural productivity, better storage for grain and water and integrated African markets could boost resilience in the region.

“Better regional climate-change and forecast models, combined with more effective agriculture in drought-threatened areas will not solve all problems, but they should reduce the need for emergency responses, and make such measures more effective when they are necessary,” he concludes.

Of course, none of these steps will be of much use for the suffering people of southern Somalia as long as extremist, exploitative warlords rule their lives.