Hunger threatens millions as El Niño causes drought and floods

Aid agencies have warned that tens of millions of people in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia face severe hunger in the next six months following failed harvests, stunted crops and soaring prices of staple foods.

Droughts and floods have occurred across the world as a result of the strongest recorded El Niño weather event. The natural climate phenomenon is peaking now and leading to a humanitarian disaster, say agencies including Oxfam, ActionAid, Care International, Plan and Catholic Relief Services.

“The effects of the strongest El Niño in several decades are set to put the world’s humanitarian system under an unprecedented level of strain in 2016 as it already struggles to cope with the fallout from conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere,” said Oxfam in a briefing paper.

According to the UN refugee agency, the number of people forced to flee their homes because of conflict has reached nearly 60 million, a level unknown since the second world war.

But in addition, nearly 39 million people will need food aid because of shortages. “Millions of people in places like Ethiopia, Haiti and Papua New Guinea are already feeling the effects of drought and crop failure. It’s already too late for some regions to avoid a major emergency,” said Jane Cocking, Oxfam GB’s humanitarian director.

“The situation is serious and deteriorating, and urgent early action is required to prevent a slide into crisis that would put the humanitarian system under enormous strain,” she said.

“[Ethiopia] is a disaster in the making. The longer it takes for humanitarian assistance to reach people in need, the larger becomes the impact of the drought,” said Geir Olav Lisle, deputy secretary general at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

Lisle has just returned from the Sitti zone in the north-eastern part of the Somali region of Ethiopia, one of the frontline areas hit by severe drought. “Livelihoods are being destroyed. Gains that have been made through development efforts in these communities over several years are at risk,” he said.

“For many, the current drought brings back memories from the drought in the 1980s when thousands of people died. The difference now is that the Ethiopian government is fully involved in the response,” said NRC’s country director in Ethiopia, Ahmednur Abdi.

The Ethiopian government and humanitarian partners have appealed for $1.4bn (£946m) to respond to the growing humanitarian needs in Ethiopia. It is not known yet how countries have responded.

Food shortages are expected to peak in southern Africa in February. South Africa has already declared several provinces as disaster areas due to drought. Malawi’s national food security forecast for 2015–16 estimates that 2.8 million people will require humanitarian assistance before March.

A further 2 million people across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua already need food aid after drought and erratic rains, and millions more in Haiti and Papua New Guinea are likely to need help. The situation is expected to deteriorate in January as floods affect Central America.

The UK’s Department for International Development said it was providing emergency support for 2.6 million people and 120,000 malnourished children, as well as food or cash support from January.

“If we fail to act now against this especially powerful El Niño, we will fail vulnerable people across our world,” development minister Nick Hurd said in a statement.

“Ensuring security for those affected by El Niño is important to their countries but also in Britain’s national interest. Only by protecting and stabilising vulnerable countries can we ensure people are not forced to leave their homes in search of food or a new livelihood.”

Dr Nick Klingaman, from the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, said: “By some measures this has already been the strongest El Niño on record. It depends on exactly how you measure it.”

“In a lot of tropical countries we are seeing big reductions in rainfall of the order of 20-30%. Indonesia has experienced a bad drought; the Indian monsoon was about 15% below normal; and the forecasts for Brazil and Australia are for reduced monsoons.”

El Niños are often followed by La Niña events, which can have opposite but similarly harmful effects. In places where we are seeing droughts from El Niño, we could be seeing flooding from La Niña next year.

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