The impact of climate variability on groundwater storage has received limited attention despite widespread dependence on groundwater as a resource for drinking water, agriculture and industry. Here, we assess the climate anomalies that occurred over Southern Africa (SA) and East Africa, south of the Equator (EASE), during the major El Niño event of 2015–2016, and their associated impacts on groundwater storage, across scales, through analysis of in situ groundwater piezometry and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite data. At the continental scale, the El Niño of 2015–2016 was associated with a pronounced dipole of opposing rainfall anomalies over EASE and Southern Africa, north–south of ∼ 12◦ S, a characteristic pattern of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Over Southern Africa the most intense drought event in the historical record occurred, based on an analysis of the cross-scale areal intensity of surface water balance anomalies (as represented by the standardised precipitation evapotranspiration index – SPEI), with an estimated return period of at least 200 years and a best estimate of 260 years. Climate risks are changing, and we estimate that anthropogenic warming only (ignoring changes to other climate variables, e.g. precipitation) has approximately doubled the risk of such an extreme SPEI drought event.