A man holds the hand of his baby who is being treated for severe acute malnutrition at the Banadir Maternity and Children Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Sept. 4, 2022.
Ed Ram—Getty Images
October 5, 2022 4:48 PM EDT

The African continent is no stranger to famine. In the 1970s and ‘80s, countries across the Sahel plunged into a drought-induced food crisis. In the mid-80s, an estimated one million people died from food shortages in Ethiopia. Somalia faced widespread famine in the ‘90s. Both those countries, along with neighboring East Africa nations, have suffered persistent food insecurity in the 21st century, with 22 million people currently at risk of starvation.

Climate change has not been the root cause of the continent’s regional famines. Decade after decade, hunger crises have stemmed from a familiar set of circumstances: poor agricultural conditions—including adverse weather, insect infestations, or improper land use—mixed with geopolitical instability. But climate change isn’t entirely blameless, either. Like an earthquake that just won’t stop, climate change breaks foundations that are already weak, and also makes it harder to repair and refortify while the ground is continually shaking.

Which is why food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa will get worse unless policies are put in place to mitigate the effects of climate change, warns an International Monetary Fund (IMF) study published on Sept. 15. The report explains that climate change can exacerbate weather conditions that hinder agriculture. When domestic agriculture is unreliable, countries face a slew of knock-on effects such as migration to cities and greater reliance on imports—each of which come with their own set of challenges that are also complicated by climate change.

“Right now in East Africa we have the worst drought in recent history, and then there are floods in Western Africa, especially in Chad,” says Pritha Mitra, an IMF economist who co-authored the paper. “The majority of sub-Saharan African people are farmers, fishermen, and herders, and so they depend on agriculture, but they don’t have a lot of infrastructure to help them deal with the climate shocks.”

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In Ethiopia, a country that has experienced a steady wave of famines over the centuries, food insecurity increases by 23 percentage points with each drought or flood, according to the IMF. Similar bumps exist for countries like Malawi (at 18 percentage points), Niger (17), and Mali (11). If climate change makes droughts and floods more frequent, or longer, or more severe, then the resulting food shortages also risk being more frequent, longer, and severe, she says. Subsequently, “if climate change impacts crops or fish, and they don’t have enough food to feed themselves, then they have to import their food.”

As the below chart shows, sub-Saharan countries fall below the global median rank for food security—a metric that accounts for food availability, affordability, and quality. Many of those countries, particularly those on the right side of the chart, are highly dependent on food imports. Those in the middle of the chart (close to the zero line) rely on imports for half of their food.

Food imports are not always reliable, though. Consider that East African countries including Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya are experiencing their third drought in the last decade. The current drought has been so extreme that it’s triggered a torturous famine that is killing one person every 48 seconds, according to estimates by Oxfam and Save the Children. The situation has been exacerbated by the sporadic and unaffordable food imports from Ukraine and Russia—both major trade partners. Between the Russo-Ukrainian war and global inflation, the price of wheat soared in Africa by over 45% after the war broke out, the African Development Bank noted in May.

Climate change could hamper global food import supply chains as well, the IMF report notes, particularly if poor weather patterns create agriculture challenges in other areas of the world. Brazil, for example, is a top food trade partner with sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank, but that country’s harvests have been blunted by several years of below-average rainfall.

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Furthermore, sufficient food production is only worthwhile if it can be distributed. And, once again, climate change exposes existing vulnerabilities along roads, bridges, train tracks, and ports—critical systems that enable bumper harvests in one country to reach less food-secure neighbors. Many sub-Saharan nations lack resilient transportation infrastructure, making systems more susceptible to damage in severe weather. In Tanzania, a country with $62 billion GDP, it’s estimated that as much as $1.4 million is lost for each day of flood-related transit disruptions, according to a 2018 report from the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium, led by Oxford University. That is significant for a country with chronic railway washouts.

Climate change can also supercharge migration trends, creating a vicious cycle of declining domestic food production and increasing reliance on imports. As the chart below shows, nearly every country in sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a population shift from rural areas to urban ones. These trends could accelerate if farmers have no choice but to sell their land and abandon their livelihoods in order to afford food. A shrinking farming workforce means that countries could face even sharper declines in domestic food production during bad times, and face a workforce crunch even when farming conditions improve.

“They move to the city because they need to eat. It’s very basic,” says Mitra. “Then there’s the problem of rapid urbanization and all the additional pressure it puts on infrastructure and the need to import even more food.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the African Development Bank has launched several initiatives to try to support agriculture, including providing resilient seeds and fertilizers to farmers across seven countries. But the IMF report points out that these efforts don’t always yield as much crop output as intended and that the entire agricultural system needs to be more resilient to climate change—from improved drainage, irrigation, and food storage, to stronger distribution infrastructure.

These upgrades need to be urgently deployed in vulnerable regions in order to prevent younger generations from suffering the long-term effects of food insecurity, including stunted growth, poor health, and even difficulty going to school, Mitra says. “The issue of climate change is constant, and getting worse every year. And more and more people are going hungry every year in Africa. It’s not just affecting lives and livelihoods today, but it will for many years to come.”

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