The Fingerprints of Climate Change on Two Extreme Natural Disasters

Africa RainfallPhoto: Alessandro Muiesan
In West Africa and Haiti, erratic precipitation patterns are underlying two immense humanitarian emergencies.

In the last few months, West Africa and Haiti have suffered major disasters of epic proportions. In West Africa, both Niger and Nigeria experienced the worst flooding in decades, which has impacted over two million people. And, after a summer of unusual drought and flash floods, Haiti’s agricultural sector suffered a fatal blow from Hurricane Sandy that has created a severe crisis for 1.5 million people. Both of these immense humanitarian emergencies have a common characteristic: underlying patterns of unusual and erratic rainfall, which are the suspected fingerprints of climate change.

MonsoonPhoto: Suzan Black
The West African monsoon produced extreme rainfall in 2012.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, in West Africa some nations received as much as 40 percent more rainfall over the normal precipitation level. Between July and September, a monsoon-driven deluge impacted Nigeria, resulting in 300 fatalities, 1.4 million people being internally displaced, and devastation across 30 of Nigeria’s 37 states. And in neighboring Niger, a long-standing and crippling drought was shattered by a historic pulse of flash flooding, which claimed almost 100 lives and also caused massive displacement.

According to analysis by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, flooding across West Africa has affected 2.4 million people in 2012 – far more than any year since 2005. Water-borne diseases such as cholera have taken root in Nigeria. And the floods have also further pressured the Sahel food security crisis in Niger as well as its eastern neighbor Chad, where 255 hectares (630 acres) of farmland were impacted.

As observed by Dr. Manava Sivkumar of the World Meteorological Organization, the frequency and magnitude of the flood events in Niger is increasing due to climate change. This perspective is also validated in a recent report presented at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the African Science Academies, which asserts that while the continent is impacted by a variety of complex weather processes, the severity of extreme events such as droughts and floods are very likely on the upswing.
DesertificationPhoto: Eric Bezine
Extenuating drought was present both in the Sahel crisis and in Haiti this summer.

Last year, the risk analysis firm Maplecroft identified Haiti as the world’s most vulnerable nation to climate change. This vulnerability is exacerbated by a variety of social factors ranging from extreme poverty to deforestation. In 2012, erratic precipitation and extreme weather events have triggered a large-scale emergency that caused devastation.

Patterns of unusual flash flooding and a perpetual drought stressed food production activities across much of the island nation throughout the summer. Then Hurricane Isaac passed through in August, causing widespread agricultural devastation.

As reported in the Miami Herald, “Changes in Haiti’s rain pattern — dry spells and floods — affected food security in almost every region of the country, according to a complex analysis carried out by the government’s food security unit after Isaac.”

In October, before it became a mid-latitude (and possibly climate change-fueled) Super Storm, Hurricane Sandy delivered a knockout blow to any remaining agricultural regions unscathed by the unusual drought, floods, and Hurricane Isaac. Even this month, a cold front triggered yet another flash flood event, decimating farming areas in Haiti’s north. The result is a simmering agricultural and humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions. Over 1.5 million people are at risk of food insecurity, with 450,000 in a severe malnutrition category.

Haiti populationPhoto: UNICEF Sverige
Resilience to climate change is a necessity in post-Sandy Haiti.

The enormous humanitarian crises in West Africa and Haiti are underpinned by an array of social, developmental and geopolitical factors as well as natural weather patterns. However, like a common instrument in two orchestras, odd and extreme precipitation events have played an unsettling melody in both disasters. Indeed, history may look back on these humanitarian emergencies as archetypes of the climate change era.

[Source: World Meteorlogical Organization,, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs/ReliefWeb, International Rescue Committee, Radio France Internationale, the Guardian, Miami Herald/Kansas,]