El Niño ready 1: the new climate cycle

Scientists are predicting the full impact of El Niño to play out in 2024, with temperatures expected to soar across the globe. Changing climate cycles are as old as the Earth itself and a natural part of what humanity will experience while living on our gorgeous blue planet. As gardeners, these changes are particularly influential as we already have a close relationship to rainfall and the weather in general, as well as the needs of our plants and garden wildlife. A period of noticeable changes is heading our way, imploring us more than ever to practice sustainable watering.

The coming change in weather pattern from La Nina (cool phase) to El Niño (warm phase), will affect the entire continent across multiple sectors – from food production, fuel and food prices, agriculture, plant life, and as we’ve seen – the possibility of day 0 in our own homes.

In this article, we’ll be answering the following questions:

  1. What is El Niño and why the change from La Nina?
  2. What has Africa learned from El Niño in the past?
  3. What can South Africa Expect? 
  4. How will El Niño impact the home gardener?

 

Before we dive in, this article is number 1 of 3 in Life is a Garden’s El Niño Preparedness Series. We recommend that you read them in chronological order for a comprehensive understanding. Together, these 3 articles will leave you well-informed and equipped for gardening in a drought. 

Article 1: El Niño - the new climate cycle (you are here)

Article 2: Gardener or Earth Custodian? 

  • What is the Good Gardener Ethos?
  • What is my conscious gardening advantage? 
  • How can I be a wildlife guardian and habitat creator?
  • How can I look after my family?

 

Article 3: The Water Warrior Way 

  • How can I affordably collect and store rainwater now? 
  • How can I grow a resilient garden?
  • Is hydrozoning right for me?
  • How should I be watering my containers, beds, and lawn?
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1. What is El Niño and why the change from La Nina?

 

“El Niño is a climate pattern that describes the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño is the “warm phase” of a larger phenomenon called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). La Niña, the “cool phase” of ENSO, is a pattern that describes the unusual cooling of the region’s surface waters. El Niño and La Niña are considered the ocean part of ENSO, while the Southern Oscillation is its atmospheric changes.” - National Geographic.

Read more about El Niño from Nat Geo here: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/el-nino/ 

El Niño events occur irregularly at two- to seven-year intervals and are defined by their wide-ranging teleconnections – related large-scale, long-lasting climate anomalies across the globe. The duration of the cycle is difficult to predict, but it is estimated to last for 9 to 12 months.

*It is important to note that some regions may be differentially affected by El Niño than others. Here are some related articles and interviews: 

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2. What has Africa learned from El Niño in the past?

In 2015 and 2016, Africa encountered a surge in the El Niño phenomenon. Based on the data accumulated during that period, the World Meteorological Organization released the following findings based on below-normal rainfall accompanied by the soaring temperatures of El Niño:

  • Worst affected countries: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
  • Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe declared national drought emergencies, and Mozambique and Madagascar declared a red alert.
  • 10 out of 15 countries appealed for international assistance.
  • Cereal deficit of 7.9 million at the end of the 2015/16 cropping season.
  • Over 500 000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition with 3.2 million children experiencing reduced access to safe drinking water, leading to a mass school dropout owing to illness and death.
  • Over 643 000 livestock deaths were recorded in 5 countries.
  • 28.5 million people were affected, as of then June 2016.

*Read the full findings of the previous El Niño cycle here :

https://gfcs.wmo.int/sites/default/files/Sithole_El%20Nino%20Impacts%20in%20Southern%20Africa.pdf

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3. What can South Africa Expect? 

  • Day 0 as a reality in some regions
  • Water-shedding and restrictions across the country
  • Huge stress on farmers and livestock
  • Support needed for wildlife and garden visitors
  • Support needed to assist municipalities
  • Increased cattle deaths
  • Low dam, reservoir, and borehole levels
  • Reduced crop yields and food production
  • Possible health problems from heat stress
  • Sectors affected include food security, livelihoods, agriculture, nutrition, health and water, sanitation, and hygiene
  • A very hot summer

 

Based on the data above, we can see that the whole continent was severely affected by the 2015/16 El Niño surge Africa has repeatedly proved its resilience and adaptability. As a country, we have experienced first-hand the innovation that comes from the need to quickly respond to our changing environment.

If we think back to the pandemic, many systems have undergone radical improvements since then, many of which gave people a lot more freedom in the end. With the power crisis, there is also a silver lining there as much of our country has now converted to solar. Past floods have also forced municipalities to address poor infrastructure and correct sewerage systems – all of these contributing to Africa’s transformation journey.

Here again, El Niño invites us to adapt, swiftly and permanently. How will we implement changes to our water consumption habits that really make a difference?  How will we sustain our families and garden. How can we use our education and resources to support communities around us who do not have the same privileges?

There is much to consider and reflect on with this topic, and it is a conversation that asks us to take a half full rather than half-empty perspective. There is nothing we can do to change the weather pattern and as a developing nation, we cannot transfer all the responsibility to municipalities and government. We are simply not in a position where we can afford to be uninvolved El Niño bystanders.

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4. How will El Niño impact the home gardener?

The information above is critical and certainly doesn’t sit well with the green-hearted gardener. With help from The South African Nursery Association (SANA), can make this work.

All GCA Garden Centres and Home Stores part of SANA are collaborating to bring you more products, landscaping inspiration, resources, plant suggestions, practical guidance, and Water Warrior practices that support sustainable gardening. 

SANA’s Water Warrior campaign captures the idea of an ethos evolution; a mindset upgrade that comes to see the gardener as more than just a plant grower but an Earth Custodian. A Water Warrior mindset belongs to a gardener who is aware of and ‘awake’ to the big-picture footprint of how each drop is used. In other words, we have ‘woken up’ to the accountability of our household’s water consumption and how our habits impact the country as a whole. 

Now is a pivotal time to be a gardener as we have a chance to reap deep fulfilment and purpose. How special we are to be the reason the owls have a home, to be the ones who feed the bees and create beautiful safe havens in the middle of cities. How kind a gardener's spirit is to treat the barbets like old friends coming for tea. Gardeners are so important that when we grow together, our greenery can be seen from space. Be it a plot or blooming balcony, wherever there is an accountable gardener, there is life that thrives!  

So, the flower show will definitely go on. The difference is that now we need to look through a specific Water Warrior lens that magnifies how we utilise our most precious resource. Our third article discusses the practical ways to go about this. In addition, Life is a Garden will continue to support you with relevant information and everyday solutions to El Niño-friendly gardening.

For educational support and inspiration, join us on Tick Tock here.

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Final thoughts 

The entire country must acknowledge how El Niño needs us to reduce everyday water consumption. We invite all gardeners to embrace their new roles as Earth Custodians and journey with us as we continue to sculpt lush landscapes in dry times.

The message SANA sends is that sustainable gardening plays an essential role during El Niño and some changes will need to be made to landscaping and watering methods currently used. GCA Garden Centres will still be fully stocked with all your favourite plants and products with additional steps taken to assist you..

Africa is in for a challenging ride and we are encouraged to support our community, especially rural areas. We are invited to extend our awareness of water to every part of the home, garden, and those we share the planet with that need our help. We are asked to consider our capacity to help, whether it be food from the garden or other resources we may have available.

Working together as a country and accepting responsibility for our water usage is the only way we will persevere. If we can begin implementing the needed changes now, we may have a good chance to come out the other side with the least amount of tragedy.

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