Africa: Droughts

Over the course of the last one hundred years the frequency and geographic dispersion of droughts has increased significantly on the African continent.

The Droughts in Africa from 1900 to 2009

Africa has been struggling with droughts for many years. Some countries there are facing enormous challenges. In a piece entitled, Kenyans eating wild animals as drought worsens, The Nairobi Chronicle, for example, reports that wild animals “face extinction by ending up on dinner tables as the worst drought in a generation takes its toll on a people impoverished by years of poor governance, corruption and political sterility.” Since 1950, Ethiopia, another drought-plagued country, has suffered more years with drought than without. How bad is the drought situation in Africa and will it get worse? This post will take a look at the drought-stricken African countries and regions  going back to 1900 and attempt to determine whether this data suggests any trends.

Africa Drought Occurrences 1900 to 2009

Table 1. 1)information compiled from The International Disaster Database, available at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, http://www.emdat.be/ [accessed 12/22/2009]

[table id=3 /]

Summary of African Drought, Years 1900 to 2009

There were a total of 23 recorded drought incidents from 1900 – 1950. 2)An incident occurs each time an individual country undergoes a discrete drought. This means that a particular country, such as Niger, could, for example suffer from 3 distinct drought episodes over a 15-year period, while Chad might have 2. This would result in a total of 5 drought incidents.

There were a total of 236 recorded drought incidents from 1950 – 2009.

Cumulative number of drought years from 1900 – 1950 is 77 years.

Cumulative number of drought years from 1950 -2009 is 357 years.

It is not known how many people were affected by all drought incidents that occurred from 1900 – 1950.

Almost 300 million people were affected by all drought incidents from 1950 – 2009.

170,000 people died as a result of droughts from 1900 – 1950.

1,592,920 people died as a result of droughts from 1950 – 2009.

Based on these death tolls and the mean population figures shown below, 4 times as many people died in the period, 1950 – 1960, compared to 1900 – 1950. There is little need to point out the disturbing irony that the technology and resources available during the latter half of the 20th Century  far surpassed those in the first. Perhaps this bitter realization is further  exacerbated by the fact that the second half of the century  also did not experience two world wars.

Analysis of Drought Years 1900 to 1950

A total of 9 countries in Africa underwent 23 drought incidents during the 50 year period from 1900 to 1950. There were 60 countries in Africa in the early 20th Century, so drought stricken countries represent 15% of the total. With the exception of Chad, which is in the Middle Region of Africa, all of the affected counties were in the Western Region. The two longest droughts affecting Africa during this period spanned 4 years apiece: 1910 – 1914 and 1940 – 1944. Except for 5 incidents, these eight years encompass all droughts during from 1900 to 1950. The complete list of drought periods can be easily summed up without the need of tables or charts:  3)Note that the month when a drought started and ended is not available, only the year or years in which the incident occurred. For the sake of simplicity, a uniform method for calculating drought duration has been used. The years in which individual droughts occurred have been subtracted from one another to yield the duration. For droughts lasting less than a year (e.g., one shown as occurring from 1971 – 1971) is calculated as having lasted one year. This methodology may overstate the duration of droughts lasting less than a year, but, on the other hand, will understate the duration for droughts lasting more than a year, since it’s possible that a drought that is logged as lasting from 1971 – 1972 will be counted as having a duration of one year though it’s quite possible that it really lasted for two years. While this methodology may not be absolutely precise, it will still provide a reliable means of making a comparison of the drought conditions affecting the world in the first and second halves of the 20th Century, which is one of the primary purposes of this natural disasters database. Also, in some cases droughts only affected part of a country, while in others affected the entire country or region of a continent. The information in the table does not distinguish and only lists the countries in which droughts occurred.

– Burkina Faso: 1910 – 1914 and 1940 – 1944
– Cape Verde Islands: 1900; 1910 – 1914; 1920; 1940 – 1944; 1946
– Chad: 1910 – 1914; 1940 – 1944
– The Gambia: 1910 – 1914; 1940 – 1944
– Guinea Bissau: 1910 – 1914; 1940 – 1944
– Mali: 1910 – 1914; 1940 – 1944
– Mauritania: 1910 – 1914; 1940 – 1944
– Niger: 1903 – 1903; 1906 – 1907; 1910 – 1914; 1940 – 1944
– Senegal: 1910 – 1914; 1940 – 1944

The population of Africa in 1950 was 221 million 4)Wikipedia contributors, “Africa,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Africa&oldid=334772736 [12-30-2009]  while in 1900 it had 178 million 5)“The World in 1900”, Think Quest, http://library.thinkquest.org/27629/w1900text.html, [accessed 12-30-2009]. If we take the mean and round it to 200 million, then the 170,000 death toll figure mentioned above would indicate that about 0.085% of the population died due to droughts that occurred from 1900 to 1950.

Cape Verde and Niger were the worst affected, each experiencing considerable loss of life caused by the droughts. The number of people lost in each country were:

Cape Verde

11,000 people in 1900

24,000 people in 1920

20,000 people from 1940 – 1944

30,000 people in 1946

Niger

85,000 people

Analysis of Drought Years 1950 to 2009

A total of 46 countries in Africa suffered 236 drought incidents in the 59 year period spanning 1950 to 2009. There are presently 58 countries in Africa, so the drought stricken countries represent 79% of the total. Africa is home to almost one  seventh of the world’s population, which is, as of 2009, one billion people, according to a recent report by the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based non-profit organisation, in a report published jointly with USAID, the United States government aid agency. It also notes that the population is growing by about 24 million people per year and is expected to double by 2050, with 349 million youths, approximately 29% of the world’s total.

In 1980, the population in Africa was approximately 485 million people 6)U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base [IDB]. Over the last 30 years, the population therefore doubled in size. If this number is taken as the mean population for the period spanning 1950 through 2009 and we consider that 300 million people (see Table 1 above) were affected by droughts, then, for the sake of measuring drought occurrence during this time period, we can state that about 62% of the total population were impacted 7)Note that this is being used as a measurement tool only and does not suggest that this was the percentage of all people in Africa that were affected, since the same populations could have been and, in some cases were, affected more than once. Approximately 0.33% of the mean population died from droughts  during this time period 8)Based on the death toll in Table 1 above. This would suggest that about four times as many people died due to droughts in 1950 – 2009 compared to 1900 – 1950.

Table 2 below shows the time periods in which the country and regions in Africa were affected by droughts.

Table 2. Drought Years in African Countries and Regions 1950 to 2009

[table id=5 /]

The 3 worst time periods were:

– 1980 – 85: 38 (66%) countries affected ;
– 2001 – 04: 27 (47%) countries affected;
– 1988 – 95: 25 (43%) countries affected.

The 4th and 5th time periods for most countries affected occurred since 1998, giving the 9-year period up until 2009 the distinction of holding 3 out of the 5 top spots in this category.

Chart A below shows the number of countries in each region that were affected by drought during the time periods shown in Table 2.

Chart A. African Countries by Region Experiencing Drought from 1950 to 2009

(click to view full-size chart)

Chart A. Countries by Region Experiencing Drought from 1950 to 2009

The average percentage of countries that experienced drought in each region over the entire period 1950 to 2009 is:

– Eastern: 46%
– Southern: 45%
– Western: 35%
– Middle: 21%
– Northern: 17%

Drought affected countries of the Eastern Region of Africa in every one of the time periods shown above. Almost as high a percentage of the Southern Region experienced drought. This contrasts starkly with the period 1900 to 1950 when the Western Region was almost exclusively drought stricken.

Chart B below shows the percentage of countries that were affected by drought during each of the designated time periods from 1950 to 2009.

Chart B. Percentage of Drought-Stricken African Countries by Region and Standardized Time Periods

(click to view full-size chart)

Percentage of Drought Affected African Countries by Region

The chart illustrates the point that there seems to be an upward trend in the frequency of droughts in countries as the time spectrum approaches the present. Another point is that from 1964 onward drought is omnipresent for an average of 33% of all countries in Africa. Once again, this contrasts with the comparatively isolated periods and regions characterizing droughts in the first half of the 20th Century.

There were 25 countries that experienced 8 or more total drought years from 1950 to 2009. This is represents close to a 300% jump compared to the 9 countries experiencing at least this many years of drought from 1900 to 1950. These countries correspond to the most affected regions discussed above. This group also contains all of the countries that experienced droughts from 1900 to 1950. Of 1,592,920 people who died because of drought conditions, all but 144 died in the 25 countries that each experienced 8 or more drought years from 1950 to 2009. These countries are listed in Table 1. On a regional perspective, they are:

– Eastern: 11 countries or 61% of the total in the region.
– Southern: 3 countries or 60& of the total in the region.
– Western: 8 countries or 47% of the total in the region.
– Northern: 1 country or 14% of the total in the region.
– Middle: 2 countries or 11% of the total in the region.

The countries that suffered the greatest loss of life from drought conditions are (note that 3 of the 4 are in the Eastern Region):

– Ethiopia, Eastern Region: 1,322,000
– Sudan, Northern Region: 150,000
– Mozambique, Eastern Region: 100, 018
– Somalia, Eastern Region: 19,073

There were 15 countries that experienced 10 or more drought years from 1950 to 2009. From 1900 – 1950, only 2 countries experienced 10 or more drought years. One of them is Niger, which is also included in the contemporaneous group of 15. Of the 1,592,920 casualties caused by drought during 1950 to 2009, 1,441,787 (or 90%) occurred in these 15 countries. The individual countries and death toll is shown in Table 1 above. The regional breakdown is:

– Southern: 2 countries or 40% of the total in the region.
– Western: 6 countries or 35% of the total in the region.
– Eastern: 6 countries or 33% of the total in the region.
– Middle: 1 country or 11% of the total in the region.

On both quantitative and qualitative levels, the Southern, Eastern, and Western Regions of Africa have experienced frequent drought conditions causing considerable human suffering and death.

References   [ + ]

1. information compiled from The International Disaster Database, available at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, http://www.emdat.be/ [accessed 12/22/2009]
2. An incident occurs each time an individual country undergoes a discrete drought. This means that a particular country, such as Niger, could, for example suffer from 3 distinct drought episodes over a 15-year period, while Chad might have 2. This would result in a total of 5 drought incidents.
3. Note that the month when a drought started and ended is not available, only the year or years in which the incident occurred. For the sake of simplicity, a uniform method for calculating drought duration has been used. The years in which individual droughts occurred have been subtracted from one another to yield the duration. For droughts lasting less than a year (e.g., one shown as occurring from 1971 – 1971) is calculated as having lasted one year. This methodology may overstate the duration of droughts lasting less than a year, but, on the other hand, will understate the duration for droughts lasting more than a year, since it’s possible that a drought that is logged as lasting from 1971 – 1972 will be counted as having a duration of one year though it’s quite possible that it really lasted for two years. While this methodology may not be absolutely precise, it will still provide a reliable means of making a comparison of the drought conditions affecting the world in the first and second halves of the 20th Century, which is one of the primary purposes of this natural disasters database. Also, in some cases droughts only affected part of a country, while in others affected the entire country or region of a continent. The information in the table does not distinguish and only lists the countries in which droughts occurred.
4. Wikipedia contributors, “Africa,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Africa&oldid=334772736 [12-30-2009]
5. “The World in 1900”, Think Quest, http://library.thinkquest.org/27629/w1900text.html, [accessed 12-30-2009]
6. U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base [IDB]
7. Note that this is being used as a measurement tool only and does not suggest that this was the percentage of all people in Africa that were affected, since the same populations could have been and, in some cases were, affected more than once.
8. Based on the death toll in Table 1 above

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started ModernFolktales.com in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

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