While the El Niño cycle is not linked directly to broader climate change processes, an assessment of the region’s responses to the current drought does provide insight into its capacity to respond to severe environmental stresses. Insights drawn from such an assessment allow for a deeper understanding of climate adaptation readiness in the region. The paper concludes that there is a need to expedite the development of regional and national response plans to severe environmental stresses, and in particular to strengthen capacity to effectively implement and co-ordinate appropriate actions. At the national level, response capacity in numerous Southern African states remains low, even in South Africa where government capacity is the highest in the region, implementation delays and co-ordination challenges have hampered effective responses to the drought. Yet despite these problems, there have also been successes in regional and national responses to droughts and longer-term climate challenges. Such programmes and innovative responses can be scaled to achieve more far-reaching impacts and thereby further develop the region’s climate adaptation readiness.