John Vidal and Tim Radford, The Guardian (UK), reports:

One in six countries in the world face food shortages this year because of severe droughts that could become semi-permanent under climate change, UN scientists warned yesterday.

In a stark message for world leaders who meet in Gleneagles next week to discuss global warming, Wulf Killman, chairman of the UN food and agriculture organisation’s climate change group, said the droughts that have devastated crops across Africa, central America and south-east Asia in the past year are part of an emerging pattern.

“Africa is our greatest worry,” he said. “Many countries are already in difficulties … and we see a pattern emerging. Southern Africa is definitely becoming drier and everyone agrees that the climate there is changing. We would expect areas which are already prone to drought to become drier with climate change.”
The food and agriculture organisation and the US government, both of which monitor global food shortages, agree that 34 countries are now experiencing droughts and food shortages and others could join them. Up to 30 million people will need assistance because of the droughts and other natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami.

The worst affected countries include Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Eritrea and Zambia, a group of countries where at least 15 million people will go hungry without aid. The situation in Niger, Djibouti and Sudan is reported to be deteriorating rapidly. Many countries have had their worst harvests in more than 10 years and are experiencing their third or fourth severe drought in a few years, the UN said.

Climate change could also trigger the growth of deserts in southern Africa. A report published in Nature today predicts that as greenhouse gases fuel global warming, the dunes of the Kalahari could begin to spread. By 2099, shifting sands could be blowing across huge tracts of Botswana, Angola, Zimbabwe and western Zambia. Much of the region was covered by shifting dunes more than 4,000 years ago.

“Dunes are composed of soft sand. If you sift away their protective vegetation cover, and there is enough energy in the wind, then that sediment has the potential to move, especially if it is dry,” said David Thomas, of the University of Oxford.

“In western Zambia there are quite a lot of these ancient sand dunes. They were quite active 4,000 years ago, which isn’t long in geological terms. There have been plenty of times when it has not been a great place to live.”

Severe droughts have also badly affected crops in Cuba, Cambodia, Australia, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Morocco, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. According to the UN’s famine early warning system, 16 countries, including Peru, Ecuador and Lesotho, face “unfavourable prospects” with current crops.

In Europe, one of the worst droughts on record has hit Spain and Portugal and halved some crop yields. Both countries have applied to the EU for food assistance. In Morocco the same regional drought has devastated farming and the government fears an influx of people into the cities.

Researchers are reporting a general drying of the land and growth of desertification in the Mediterranean region. “The 20-year average clearly shows a dramatic increase of desertification and drought,” said a leading agricultural economist, Professor Giovanni Quaranta, of the University of Basilicata in southern Italy.

Henri Josserand, the UN’s famine early warning system director, said: “In southern Africa especially, there is no question that drought has become much more frequent in the past few years. There has been a sequence of drought years for four or five years. What is unusual is the repeat patterns”.

The situation in Malawi and Zimbabwe is giving particular cause for concern.

In Malawi, where a government report suggests more more than 430,000 tonnes of maize will be needed to avert the second food shortage in three years, one in three people are expected to need help by the end of the year following poor rains. Thousands of people died in 2002-03 in what became known as a “hidden famine”, which affected the poorest and remotest people.

“It’s going to get rapidly worse and we will have to move substantial amounts of food very fast,” said one non-governmental group working in the worst-hit southern region of Malawi.

In Zimbabwe, where the effects of drought have been exacerbated by a deteriorating political situation, 4 million people may need help this year, the US government’s famine early warning system showed.

“In all rural districts of Zimbabwe, crop production was poor and well below normal,” said a report last week.

UN sources suggest that getting food to the country will not be difficult because neighbouring South Africa had a surplus this year, but distribution in the politically volatile circumstances may be hard.

A report by Britain’s leading development and environment groups this week backed the UN studies that suggest Africa will most feel the effects of drought and desertification under climate change, and will experience continued food shortages.

“Africa is more exposed to the impacts of climate change than many other regions in the world. Climate change is happening, and it is affecting livelihoods that depend on the natural environment, which, in Africa, means nearly everyone,” said Andrew Simms, spokesman for the World Development Movement.

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