Haile Gebrselassie, the world’s greatest-ever long-distance runner, has warned that the world is in danger of “forgetting a huge emergency” in Ethiopia and other African states struggling to respond to shortages after the most extreme El Niño in half a century.
Although El Niño itself has now largely subsumed, the after-affects of record droughts and flooding across much of sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and Asia run from tens of millions facing chronic food insecurity, to dead livestock and children forced off family farms or out of school to beg or scrounge for a living.
Gebrselassie was speaking in his role as ActionAid ambassador ahead of today’s (19 July) conference of some 60 governments to look at funding for post-El Niño relief, attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The Ethiopian runner, who set 27 world records during his career, said, “There’s a huge emergency here in Ethiopia and the world is at risk of forgetting what’s happening. Millions of people are hungry following the country’s worst drought for 50 years.
“Families are in desperate need of food as crops have been destroyed, livestock has been killed and people’s way of life has been dramatically altered.”
Gebrselassie also warned that the world’s reaction now – as such climate-change related disasters become more commonplace – would be a “test of how we cope in the future”.
“My home country has taken enormous steps forward in recent years, not least in providing healthcare in rural communities. But people here have been suffering for several months now, particularly young children and pregnant mothers. If we’re not able to get more help to people soon the suffering of people will be much more severe,” he added.
Globally, some 60 million people are believed to suffering food shortage or insecurity as a result of the 2016 El Niño. In Ethiopia, the worst drought in 50 years has left 10 million now dependent on food aid, while 435,000 children are in need of immediate treatment for acute malnutrition.
Funding for the crisis so far stands at only one third of the levels required, according to the UN. Food shortages are expected to continue into 2017 across southern Africa, as people attempt to replenish crops and livestock.
That means the human impact has yet to peak.
Also particularly badly affected has been Somaliland, Zimbabwe and Malawi.
Meanwhile, a report from UNICEF and the US-evangelical charity World Vision, has looked in detail at the devastating knock-on effects on children from El Niño in nine sub-Saharan African countries.
As well as the obvious plight of malnutrition and food insecurity, the need to eat either drives children into migration themselves, leaving family or school, or leaves the parents away for such periods as to leave the children open to abuse.
The authors interviewed child practitioners, as well as crunching the data from South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although the threat to children of famine or starvation was the biggest perceived risk, in second place was the risk of sexual exploitation and violence.
The report found that just under 50% of those interviewed thought sexual violence and sexual exploitation of children had increased since August 2015, and the onset of the current El Niño.
Some 80% of those thought sex was now being traded for food by girls under the age of 14.
Nearly 80% of all respondents said school drop-out rates had increased with El Niño. In one province of Zimbabwe alone, 6,000 children had dropped out of school due to hunger, or to help their families with house or farm work.
Just under half of respondents said parents were now commonly sending their children away due to lack of food. These children are aged 5-14.
The main reason – cited by 70% – was lack of food. Drought and lack of water were the next most common cause.
Over half also believed child labour had increased since El Niño.