Millions remain at risk of hunger even as this El Niño winds down

Workers in the Oromia region of Ethiopia dig an artificial pond as a part of a UNDP-support initiative to bring water and temporary work to the drought-affected region. (UNDP Ethiopia/flickr)

Some good news. The peak of El Niño already passed and it is set to come to an end by this summer. It was the worst such global weather event in 15 years and was on par with the historic El Niños of 1982-83 and 1997-98, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Now, some bad news. More than 100 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America are left vulnerable due to weather changes. Drought in southern Africa alone is responsible for affecting 49 million people, according to the World Food Program earlier this week. Rainfall in the region for the last quarter of 2015 was the lowest since 1981.

Finally, a reality check. Though the end is near for El Niño, its impact was widespread and will linger throughout the year. Aid groups, international bodies, civil society and local governments are acting to respond to the problems created by El Niño, and in some places avert a major crisis. The latest figures estimate more than 14 million people in just southern Africa face hunger. Some 50,000 South Africans were pushed into poverty because of El Niño. Both figures are much higher when looking to the rest of the world.

Various warnings have been made in recent weeks to draw attention to the magnitude of the problem. UNICEF, for its part, said nearly 1 million children are in need of treatment for severe malnutrition in eastern and southern Africa.

24482783746_e7d3458000_h“The El Niño weather phenomenon will wane, but the cost to children – many who were already living hand-to-mouth – will be felt for years to come,” said Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala, UNICEF regional director for eastern and southern Africa, in a statement on Wednesday. “Governments are responding with available resources, but this is an unprecedented situation. Children’s survival is dependent on action taken today.”

The end of El Niño is not the end of abnormal weather. La Niña or “anti-El Niño” is likely to follow as sea surface temperatures cool down and return to normal. If it comes later in 2016, it could bring wet and cool conditions to southern Africa. That shifts to southern Asia if it comes earlier. There is no certainty when La Niña will come nor its intensity, but the potential for more problems lingers.

Amid the uncertainty, there are some general knowns. Missed rainy seasons mean millions of people will need assistance globally. Large portions of Lesotho, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Angola are struggling. The U.K.’s Department of International Development said that food prices are rising and shutting out the poorest people in southern Africa. There is little that can relieve the problem, even rain, aside from humanitarian assistance from governments and donors. Yet, as always, the humanitarian appeals for the region are significantly underfunded.

Some of the worst predictions for the impact of El Niño have yet to become reality. But the end of the weather pattern does not mean the world is in the clear. Food insecurity and hunger are real possibilities.

“Parts of South America and east Africa are still recovering from torrential rains and flooding. The economic and human toll from drought – which by its nature is a slowly developing disaster – is becoming increasingly apparent in southern and the Horn of Africa, Central America and a number of other regions,” said Petteri Taalas, head of the World Meteorological Organization, to the media.

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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.