Flooding in the Katanga Province, southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, has destroyed houses, farms and livelihoods, and it is thought that 40,000 people face food shortages. Without a contingent climate risk adaption strategy in place, and with the global effects of El Niño set to continue, it is likely that Katanga could face further flooding and humanitarian emergency.
Katanga is a region of the DRC all too familiar with disaster. The region, infamously given the title “The Triangle of Death” by the international community, was the focus of a brutal effort from rebel group Mai Mai Bakata Katanga to secede from the DRC in 2014. This caused the displacement of 400,000 people and a severe lack of food, water and basic services. Many farmers were targeted by the Bakata Katanga who burned down their houses, stole their cattle and destroyed their livelihoods, causing food insecurity and malnutrition in the area.
The conflict was resolved in 2015 by a joint U.N. Mission, restoring the hopes of many as well as the livelihoods and prospects of many smallholder farmers. The rains came seasonally on time and many had expected the situation to continue to improve. But instead the rains kept on coming, causing the Congo River to flood and swamp farmers’ fields. Though the threat of conflict has reduced somewhat, residual political insecurity has affected the ability of the international community to respond to the situation, making the region largely inaccessible to NGOs. The issue of food security continues to plague the region.
In recent years, the area has faced both acute food shortages and malnutrition. A Save the Children report in 2010 estimated that around half of all children in the region are chronically malnourished. Though child malnutrition had briefly improved in the area following the cessation of violence, the effects of flooding have made the situation chronic again.
Flooding in Katanga has only further compounded food shortages, “undermining humanitarian and development actors’ efforts to assist vulnerable people and communities,” said Claude Kalinga, World Food Program communications and reports officer based in Kinshasa. The livelihoods of many farmers, who have seen their crops washed away, have greatly suffered, exacerbating already chronic levels of food shortages.
Response to the situation in Katanga is difficult, given its remoteness and the issue of accessibility in a part of the country that often sees recurrent and large-scale flooding. The violence of 2014 has destroyed much of the road infrastructure, for example, making it harder to reach rural communities in need.
Currently there is no coherent, comprehensive international response to the crisis. Much of the efforts from the international community has been on responding to the drought effects of El Niño seen in much of the southern half of the continent, Kalinga said.
Such adverse climate patterns “were not expected in the central part of Africa, especially with this level of intensity,” said Catherine Hiltzer, desk manager of Solidarités International’s office. Little of the response has been on “ensuring that people are protected against climate risks,” said Kalinga, adding that “there is no dedicated monitoring or early warning systems in place” to ensure humanitarian agencies and local organizations are prepared before floods strike.
The effects of El Niño on Katanga are very real. Generally in the DRC, the rainy season begins in September every year, but for the last two years, the start has been delayed, with the season starting in December last year. As a result, “the farming season was disrupted and this has had a negative impact on smallholders’ agricultural production and on the sale of their produce in local markets,” Kalinga said. Harvests have been affected, creating a greater demand for food on an agricultural system that does not have the capacity to deal with climate risks.
Given the shortage of local food production, organizations like Solidarités International and World Food Program have stepped up to meet the needs of the crisis. Relief efforts have included “conventional” food handouts that are just about meeting basic needs, but it is clear that more must be done to combat longer-term climate shocks that will continue to affect the region beyond the current situation. Both Hiltzer and Kalinga argue that, in order to restore the local agricultural system and prevent crop loss, actors both at national and international level must provide more contingent strategies to mitigate these shocks and provide coping strategies for smallholder farmers.
Food for assets projects that strengthen resilience and reduce disaster risk, as well as seed saving, are part of this wider response, Hiltzer said. However, the very strategies employed to improve the resilience and increase the capacity of communities to deal with climate effects like flooding are under threat due to a lack of funding. So far the response has been critically underfunded, with humanitarian organizations needing “the support of additional donors to make sure that the successes of resilience projects are not totally destroyed by El Niño,” Hiltzer said.
Given the scale of the crisis, organizations like World Food Program are “limited in their ability to deal with the impact of such a devastating phenomenon,” Kalinga said, if the funding is not there. The international community must take stock of the crisis in Katanga and ensure that the livelihoods of smallholder farmers are protected against floods as much as they are against drought. The “phenomenon” in Katanga was not expected to hit so hard and has caught the international community off guard. Kalinga concludes by saying that it is the role of the media to provide better coverage of the crisis to ensure that humanitarian agencies respond accordingly.