NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Human-induced climate change contributed to low rain levels in East Africa in 2011, making global warming one of the causes of Somalia's famine and the tens of thousands of deaths that followed, a new study has found.
It is the first time climate change was proven to be partially to blame for such a large humanitarian disaster, an aid group said Friday.
Three climate scientists with Britain's national weather service studied weather patterns in Somalia in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.
But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of "the systematic warming (of Earth) due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations on the long rains," said Peter Scott of Britain's National Weather Service, known as the Met Office.
The British government estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died from the famine. But the new research doesn't mean global warming directly caused those deaths.
Ethiopia and Kenya were also affected by the lack of rains in 2011, but aid agencies were able to work more easily in those countries than in war-ravaged Somalia, where the al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist group al-Shabab refused to allow food aid into the wide areas under its control.
Still, the new research proves for the first time that climate change was one of the triggers for the drought, which was one of the causes of the famine, said Senait Gebregziabher, the Somalia country director for the aid group Oxfam.
"Climate change is not a threat that may hurt us in the future, because it is already causing a rise for humanitarian needs," Gebregziabher said. "In the coming decades, unless urgent action is taken to slash greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures in East Africa will continue to rise and rainfall patterns will change. This will create major problems for food production and availability."
Scott said that the evidence is "very strong" that the planet is warming due to an increase in greenhouse gases. He noted that the study found that both natural causes — La Nina and the short rains — and man-made causes contributed to Somalia's drought.
The study found that between 24 percent and 99 percent of the cause of the failure of the 2011 rains can be attributed to the presence of man-made greenhouse gases, Scott said.
The study was not able to predict how climate change will affect Somalia's rainfall in coming years, but some Somali leaders are concerned. Ahmed Awale works for the non-profit group Candlelight, which is dedicated to improving conservation and the environment. He said Somali's climate has been changing for many decades, with rainfall patterns becoming more erratic.
A study by his group has found tree species dying on the coast because of the hotter weather. What he called "mist forests" exist in Somalia's highlands, he said, but they too are drying out because of decreasing rain and increasing temperatures. That led his group to carry out a study called "Climate Change Stole Our Mist."
"If you miss one of the two rainy seasons we have a very severe drought. The other indicator is that there is a rise in temperature," he said, adding later: "This all negatively impacts the livelihood of the people. Most of Somalis depend mostly on pastoral production."