OPINION | The full economic impact of El Niño in 2024 will be dire. Are we prepared?

Zimbabwe faces its worst drought in years (pic: Cynthia Matonhodze/Bloomberg)

By Panashe Kaletu

As meteorological institutions and departments release forecasts and reports, the imminent arrival of El Niño in the Southern Africa region during the 2023/24 farming season emerges as a critical concern. The climatic disruptions pose a great risk to Zimbabwe’s social and economic spheres.

El Niño, characterised by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the East Pacific Ocean, heralds a shift in weather patterns and rainfall distribution. The imminent El Niño event in 2023/24 threatens to worsen the country’s vulnerability, considering Zimbabwe’s history of grappling with droughts in pivotal years like 1991-1994, 2002, 2004, 2012, 2016, and 2017.

The 2012 drought, for instance, inflicted a staggering 45% deficit in maize production, pushing 1.4 million Zimbabweans to the brink of famine, as reported by the FDI Global Food and Water Security Research Programme. The forthcoming El Niño is poised to intensify aridity, significantly impacting food and animal production across traditionally dry regions.

The repercussions of the 2015/2016 El Niño-induced drought, such as livestock deaths, crop failures, and water shortages, underscore the potential severity of the upcoming event on Zimbabwe’s social and economic landscape.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) points to a warming trend in the Sea Surface Temperature of the East Pacific Ocean in June, July, and August. This El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) could lead to higher precipitation in some parts of the world and lower precipitation in others, notably affecting Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe.

The impact of El Niño is being felt from October to December 2023 and up to March 2024. This is the crucial planting and early crop development phase, potentially leading to shorter windows for crop development due to delayed rainfall.

Zimbabwe, already grappling with macroeconomic challenges such as high input costs, infrastructure constraints and restrictions on genetically engineered seeds, faces an additional threat to maize production in the 2023/24 season. El Niño is expected to make these issues worse, leading to maize shortages and a consequent rise in mealie-meal prices.

The Grain Marketing Board (GMB) is tasked with maintaining a minimum strategic reserve of 500,000 metric tons of maize. The convergence of low production and El Niño conditions poses a formidable challenge to sustaining the required grain reserves. Consequently, Zimbabwe finds itself compelled to import maize, a costly endeavour given the El Niño impact on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

Maize shortages are likely to trigger an inflationary spiral in mealie-meal prices and maize-derived products, affecting chicken feed prices. The interconnected nature of food commodities implies that an increase in one price point will trigger a chain reaction of price increases. Speculation about rising broiler feed costs could amplify chicken prices, though the initial impact might be mitigated by lower beef prices in the early months of 2024. Livestock deaths due to El Niño are anticipated to force rural breeders to sell livestock at reduced prices, adding a layer of complexity to the economic ramifications.

Tobacco farmers, too, find themselves in the crosshairs of this impending crisis, as a substantial decrease in the export of this crucial foreign currency-earning crop is anticipated

The anticipated decline in maize production and the broader impact on agriculture are poised to dent Zimbabwe’s economic growth. Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube projects a drop in economic growth from 5.5% to 3.5% in 2024, attributing it mainly to the expected drought caused by El Niño.

The anticipated below-average rainfall in the region extends the consequences beyond the agricultural sector. The intricate web of effects touches the services and manufacturing sectors. The Kariba hydroelectric power plants, a crucial component of Zimbabwe’s electricity generation, are expected to face significant disruptions, with ripple effects permeating manufacturing and energy industries. This multifaceted impact is projected to negatively affect productivity levels, employment rates, and aggregate demand, ultimately culminating in a detrimental effect on GDP.

The drought will also affect already strained social services, such as disruptions in water sanitation, social protection services. It brings with it new potential health crises. Livestock deaths, disease outbreaks, hunger, mental health challenges, and infectious diseases loom on the horizon. The ongoing cholera outbreak is expected to worsen due to water scarcity, furthering the spread of diarrheal diseases. Diminishing incomes may force families to confront challenges related to school expenses, potentially leading to learners dropping out due to factors such as child marriages, pregnancies, or child labour

In light of these impending challenges, proactive measures are crucial. Farmers must explore drought-resistant crops, embrace water-saving techniques, and diversify agricultural practices. Household preparedness, including food storage and conservation, becomes paramount to weathering the storm of maize shortages and escalating prices.

As Zimbabwe navigates the anticipated El Niño in 2024, a comprehensive and coordinated approach is vital to mitigate the socio-economic impacts. By implementing proactive measures and fostering resilience, the nation can strive to minimize the potential devastation and build a more robust foundation for future challenges.

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Panashe is an economist, researcher and writer. He can be contacted on pkaletu04@gmail.com or @pankal04 on X