‘Why we should be worried about El Niño’

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World leaders meet in Paris, France from 30 November to 11 December 2015 to sign a new climate change agreement to be implemented in 2020. The Paris deal would replace the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997 and effected in 2005. Signed in the Japanese city of Kyoto, the Protocol extended the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Convention committed signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are behind global-warming and the prevailing shifting weather pattern. Global warming and climate change describe the century-scale rise in the average temperature of the earth’s climate system and its related effects.  Last week, the Lesotho government announced the country was expecting its worst drought in 43 years due to a weather phenomenon called El Niño. The adverse weather is anticipated between September 2015 and March 2016, and would shorten the farming season, leading to reduced agricultural output.

In this wide-ranging interview, Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Pascalinah Kabi speaks with Energy and Meteorology Minister Selibe Mochoboroane, on the country’s efforts to mitigate and adapt to the shifting weather pattern.

LT: Last week you spoke about a phenomenon called El Niño and that it is responsible for the severe drought this country is going to experience this farming season. In layman’s language, what did you mean? What is El Niño and its relationship with climate change?

Mochoboroane: El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns. The cycle begins when warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean shifts eastwards along the equator towards the coast of South America, leaving southern Africa facing excessive heat, thunderstorms, drought and lightning. Lesotho, as part of southern Africa, is not immune to this phenomenon.

However, these weather patterns can only be referred to as El Niño if they occur consecutively for more than seven months. The current El Niño will run until the end of February 2016, but I cannot say we will experience normal weather after that date.

Because of the effects of climate change, we no longer have normal weather patterns. Nevertheless, it is important for our people to know we are still anticipating a bit of rainfall between November and December. This means all hope is not lost as we will still be able to plant some crops despite the fact that the expected rainfall is going to minimal.

For instance, if Maseru used to experience 200-millimetres of rainfall during a normal rainy season, this time around, we are only going to have 100-millimetres.

I must mention that while the effects of El Niño are going to be dire in the southern African region, Central Africa will be experiencing floods during this period.

Our region enjoys heavy rainfall when there is La Niña. La Niña is associated with cooler than normal water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, unlike El Niño which is associated with warmer than normal water. In short, both El Niño and La Niña are the result of climate change.

LT: Why should Basotho be terrified of El Niño when this country has water in abundance and we are already experiencing some rainfall?

Mochoboroane: You must remember that Lesotho depends on rainfall for its farming and the current weather conditions simply mean we will not be able to produce enough food to last us the entire season. However, we still have an advantage over other regional countries as we have water to drink; our suffering is not going to be as desperate as Botswana and South Africa.

Because of its dry terrain and desert, Botswana started experiencing water shortage at the beginning of August while South Africa pleaded with us to release water into Mohokare River so they could access it from there.

Coming back home, Mafeteng and Mohale’s Hoek are the most affected because they are desert-like. By now, we should be having water reserves ready to supply these two districts with the precious commodity.

Maseru’s advantage is Metolong Dam which has the capacity to supply it with water, as well as Berea and Morija. Due to this drought, we are expecting people to suffer from fever, diarrhea and malnutrition. We are also expecting to see some species like fish decreasing at an alarming rate but as government, we must be in a position to help our people. That, in a nutshell, is why we should all be worried about El Niño.

LT: How prepared are you, as government, to ensure ordinary citizens are not hard-hit by El Niño?

Mochoboroane: As a ministry, we became fully aware of El Niño in August but advised ourselves that it would not be wise to inform and alarm the nation without strategies on how best we could minimise its effects.

We then warned ministries of Agriculture and Food Security, Health, Forestry and Water, as well as the Disaster Management Authority (DMA) which falls under the Prime Minister’s Office, to prepare themselves for the looming drought.

Collectively, as government, we have since come up with strategies on how best we can address and minimise the effects of this drought. We will begin to supply hunger-stricken communities with food as soon as we are alerted of the need to do so; we will not wait until people die. Where there is a shortage of water, we will immediately supply the water; where medicine is needed, we will move swiftly to address such a problem.

You will also be aware that relevant ministries are also engaged in dam-digging projects to ensure when we experience low rainfall in November/December, we will be able to capture that water. Communities are also advised to collect as much water as possible at their homes during this period.

El Niño will not have a huge impact on Lesotho if, as government, through different ministries, we religiously do what is expected of us during this time and after.

LT: How is your ministry going to ensure all the other stakeholders also do their part to mitigate the effects of this El Niño?

Mochoboroane: My role as head of meteorology is to constantly brief cabinet on new developments concerning this El Niño; this will ensure this is a joint government effort.

Making this a national priority will make things easier for relevant stakeholders to act and the ministry of finance to release funding targeted to address the expected adverse weather conditions.

Jointly, we must further go all-out and hold awareness programmes to sensitise the nation about the current weather patterns.

Our other responsibility, as the meteorology ministry, is to go out of our comfort zones to educate the nation about climate change as it is a new phenomenon. We must move fast and ensure we are ready for any climate change aftermath.

We must stop always being shocked and not knowing what to do when we experience lightning and hailstorms, leaving our citizens homeless and without enough food to eat.

The Disaster Management Authority must be empowered with enough resources to anticipate and prepare for such aftermath and always be ready to move in and help our people.

Secondly, no child or herd-boy must be killed by hailstorm or lightning because they were not aware of the predicted weather.

Herd-boys must be sensitised to stop grazing their livestock at Maphaka-Tlali (places that attract lightning) during the rainy season for their own safety.

We have rolled-out training on climate change reporting as we believe without the buy-in of different media houses, we will not win this battle.

LT: What is government doing to ensure ordinary citizens own and champion climate change adaptations?

Mochoboroane: Since this is a sensitive issue affecting real people in our villages and communities, Health and Local Government ministries are very key in this fight. The two ministries have well-established structures in the villages such as councils, chiefs and village health workers. Our climate change education and empowerment programmes will directly target these structures. They are perfect facilities to educate people to always wash their hands after using the toilet and before handling food, even a fruit, for instance.

Chiefs and councilors will constantly educate herd-boys about places to avoid due to their vulnerability to lightning, as we have such places in Lesotho.

LT: But how do we expect people to always wash their hands when they have to preserve the precious liquid?

Mochoboroane: Preparations are at an advanced stage to have tankers placed in areas stricken by water shortage. These tankers have been made in such a way that water is reprocessed there and then and that there will be no water lost. That way, we will still save the already limited water while applying good hygienic practices at the same time.

Unfortunately, we only have seven tankers situated at WASCO (Water and Sewerage Company ) at the moment. But due to the severity of the drought we are anticipating, we will have to ensure more tankers are procured and transport water to different areas of our country. However, we will now need the expertise of WASCO officials on this one.

LT: Going back to climate change, does Lesotho have a climate change policy to facilitate the domestication of international protocols like Kyoto?

Mochoboroane: No; and unfortunately, it is not only Lesotho which does not have a climate change policy. We have established that all SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries do not have climate change policies.

We have sourced funding from UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) that will be used to develop our domestic climate change policy. The entire SADC region will learn from us because if one does not have a guiding tool, one walks in the dark and is unable to achieve whatever goals are being targeted.

There is an urgent need for Lesotho to have a guiding tool regarding this phenomenon. Preparations are at an advanced stage as we have enrolled the expertise of SADC to help us develop the policy. My expectation is that 18 months from now, we would have produced a viable climate change policy.

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