Effects of El Niño will persist long after it is gone, projections show

Ethiopia drought (Credit: EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie)

Some good news: the El Niño weather phenomenon that caused drought and food insecurity for tens of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa is almost over. Some bad news: the problems caused by the drought are far from over. Food insecurity will persist and actually get worse in some regions over the next years. After a year-long campaign to rally support for people affected by El Niño, the end seems no closer.

The southern part of Madagascar saw crops completely fail during the recent harvest. Rainfall in March returned to average, but that was not enough to make up for months of little to no rain. Many parts of the country are returning to normal, but some will see food insecurity reach its worse point between January and March 2017, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

The story is similar for the rest of Southern Africa. The record El Niño will continue to affect farmers and families through 2016 and into the following year. Harvests happening now will likely only help for a short period of time. As food runs out and prices likely increase, the peak of the problem for the region is expected to occur between December 2016 and March 2017. FEWS NET estimates that the number of people without enough food will double from the 2.5 million currently in crisis.

Ethiopia said Tuesday that it needed $702.6 million for this year to address its humanitarian needs for 2016. The majority of that money will go to food, nutrition and agriculture – areas in need of special attention given the fact that more than 8 million people need assistance as the country suffers from the worse drought in 50 years. The number affected could climb up to 15 million, the U.N. warned, if not enough is done to help.

The cycle of drought-related problems continues in neighboring Somalia. Nearly 1.7 million people living in the autonomous Puntland and Somaliland are in need of humanitarian assistance. Without help, more than 1 million people could join the 385,000 already experiencing acute food insecurity.

“I am deeply concerned about the devastating effects of the persisting drought on the communities in Puntland and Somaliland,” said Peter de Clercq, a U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, following his recent visit to those areas, in a statement. “If we can vaccinate livestock and provide cash and inputs to agro-pastoralists now, we can mitigate the impact of the current drought.”

Despite all of these warnings, the outlook for action to mitigate the most harm is grim. A recent blog post by Rebecca Rewald, administrative assistant for the policy department at Oxfam America, warns that the lack of funding by the international community could allow the worst warnings to come true.

“We already see a lack of preparedness by policymakers, reflected in gaps in funding in all regions and sectors affected by El Niño,” she writes. “In Southern Africa, the funding gap is USD 472 million, while in the Horn of Africa, its USD 797 million. These shortfalls in funding are truly unfortunate and frustrating, especially because we have the information needed to adequately prepare. And our lack of preparedness likely means devastating impact for the communities of these regions as the crisis worsens over the coming months.”

Meanwhile, more than 60 million people globally are in need of humanitarian assistance due to El Niño. From Guatemala to Malawi to Indonesia the problem has a global reach. Warnings have been issued for months that this El Niño was particularly severe. With new warnings saying that it could get worse, what will be done to avoid the worst case scenarios?

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.