Climate Surprises that Shouldn’t Be Surprising

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
10 October 2005

pen5“Surprise” is a funny word. Often it does not mean what it was originally intended to mean. The following definitions of surprise were taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.

•  The (or an) act of coming upon one unexpectedly, or of taking unawares; a sudden attack.

•  To take by surprise : to come upon unexpectedly, take unawares; hence, to astonish by unexpectedness.

•  Something that takes one by surprise; an unexpected occurrence or event; anything unexpected or astonishing.

•  The feeling or emotion excited by something unexpected, or for which one is unprepared; Alarm, terror, or perplexity, caused by a sudden attack, calamity, or the like.

•  Surprise is the feeling or mental state, akin to astonishment and wonder, caused by an unexpected occurrence or circumstance.

parchedearthA key element of the different dictionary definitions of “surprise” is the word “unexpected”. Yet, many of us use the word surprise in ways that do not depend on the element of being unexpected. For example, I am sure that at some time we have said such things to our friends like the following: I was “semi-surprised”, “almost surprised”, “hardly surprised”, “a little surprised”, “somewhat surprised”, “sort of surprised”, and so forth. These expressions were drawn from different articles.

The truth is that there are “knowable surprises”. That sounds like a phrase in which the words contradict each other. If you believe in the official definition of the word, you could not know that a surprise is coming? Yet there are knowable surprises.

Knowable Surprises

I have identified some climate-related surprises for Africa south of the Sahara. The following list of surprises to governments or to the media, for example, that should not have been surprising was generated by a discussion about famine in Malawi in 2002.

  • When a drought occurs (i.e., defined here as less rainfall than is needed for favorable crop production or for sufficient rangeland vegetation), governments are surprised and are, therefore, often unprepared to deal efficiently or effectively with it. Yet, drought in sub-Saharan Africa is not only a remote possibility but it is a foreseeable occurrence somewhere on the continent in any given year. That droughts occur at all and with some regularity should not surprise anyone when one appears. However, what could be surprising would be the severity of its physical characteristics or its impacts on different countries or villages.
  • During an El Nino event in the Pacific Ocean thousands of kilometers away, there is a likelihood (but not a certainty) of drought in various countries, especially in east, northeast and southern Africa.

food Food distribution in Malawi. Richard Lord, UMCOR 2002 (ACT).

  • Food shortages are often the result of inappropriate land use policies. There are many examples of people and governments being encouraged to grow things in locations that are not well suited to the local or regional climate conditions. Yet, growing wheat on irrigated farms in Northeastern Nigeria, for example, is not the best use of the land and water. For example, a wheat crop is more sensitive to adverse changes in rainfall and temperature than are other traditional crops in the region such as millet and sorghum.
  • In many agricultural areas there is a competition between growing subsistence crops and cash crops. Subsistence crops feed people but cash crops are grown for sale out of the country. Farmers are paid for their cash crops (such as qat or cotton), but if there is a drought and cash crop production falls sharply, they have no food to eat or money to buy it with in the local marketplace. Often, irrigation schemes are built to grow cash crops for export. They continue to do so even in countries that have food shortages.
  • During prolonged severe droughts, often high interest rate loans have to be repaid either in cash or in kind (such as by working on the fields of the lender) by those who had to borrow seeds for planting, food for the family or funds to buy food. This creates as well as perpetuates an unequal relationship between the person lending the seeds or money and those who borrow it. This leads to more exploitation by the lender of the borrower who may, for example, have to work on the fields of the lender at critical planting and harvesting times, at the neglect of his own fields.
  • The time that humanitarian food donors need to respond to emerging famine conditions is relatively long. After a couple of decades the system appears to work but could be greatly improved. Part of the problem rests with how different people see and use the indicators of food problems: some people know a food problem is starting by looking at the crop conditions in the field while others wait for signs of severe shortages such as people abandoning their villages in search of food.

foodclimb World Food Programme

  • Not all the food aid goes to those in need.This is a problem for the donors of food assistance. There are examples where the food aid has been diverted by governments to keep the army loyal, for example, or has ended up by being sold on the black market.
  • In reality, pledges by governments to provide food aid are often not met. Donor governments, like people, get caught up in the emotion surrounding a disaster, including the need to help victims. Yet, when it comes time to follow through on food aid or pledged funds, they fail often to do so.
  • Those segments of the population that who are likely to become victims during droughts are known well before food shortages occur. Many of the people who are at-risk to malnutrition during food shortages can be identified before hand: the poor, pregnant women, the elderly and children.
  • It is well known that there is a time of the year just prior to harvesting known as the hunger season. This is the period leading up to the harvest as well as during it when nutritional levels of the people are severely stressed. It is a period when people are hard at work in the fields, and when family food reserves are at very low levels for many.
  • People are dependent on the natural flow of the seasons. Anything that disrupts that expected seasonal rhythm — like a drought or a flood, an infectious disease outbreak, or a late beginning or early end of the rainy season — causes major societal disruptions.
  • During severe food shortages and especially during famine situations, there is an increase in population movements in search of food and shelter. Preparations can be made well in advance to keep people in or near their villages by way of providing food and funds for public works as has been done in Latin America.

Some Thoughts to Consider

0802malawi2 June 2002. Jarson Mphezewa, a farmer in the village of Lovimbi, Malawi, 100 km from Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital (photo: AFP).

Each of these twelve situations have been referred to as a surprise, when if fact it should not have been. We know a lot about what happens in sub-Saharan Africa when the rains fail, when the rivers become dry or when crop production drops like a proverbial stone. At least at a strategic long-range planning level, national governments and the international community could and should take effective evasive precautionary preparatory actions in response to foreseeable food shortages likely to occur in different parts of Africa in any given year (this, however, requires political willpower). While governments, development banks, and donor agencies might claim surprise by a decline in access to food in the marketplace, claiming it does not make it so.

Underlying many of the points above is that governments and donors must take early warning activities much more seriously than they have in the past. It is not enough to have an accurate forecast of an adverse event; that is, a good forecast system is only part of a larger early warning system in which communication and response mechanisms are an integral part. Also, it is not enough to have an early warning activity if it is to be funded at low levels that make it impossible to deliver effective and timely warnings to those in need, not providing them with enough time to react to the warning.

Effective early warning systems can empower governments in ways that help them to protect their citizens as well as their political stability. After all, there are several examples where poor response to hazards or their adverse impacts led to the downfall of governments, as was the case during the 1968-73 drought across Africa’s Sahel when four governments were overthrown by drought-related coups.


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