Severe droughts and floods triggered by one of the strongest El Niño weather events ever recorded have left nearly 100 million people in southern Africa, Asia and Latin America facing food and water shortages and vulnerable to diseases including Zika, UN bodies, international aid agencies and governments have said.
New figures from the UN’s World Food Programme say 40 million people in rural areas and 9 million in urban centres who live in the drought-affected parts of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi and Swaziland will need food assistance in the next year.
In addition, 10 million people are said by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) to need food in Ethiopia (pdf), and 2.8 million need assistance in Guatemala and Honduras.
Millions more people in Asia and the Pacific regions have already been affected by heatwaves, water shortages and forest fires since El Niño conditions started in mid-2015, says Ocha in a new briefing paper, which forecasts that harvests will continue to be affected worldwide throughout 2016.
“Almost 1 million children are in need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition in eastern and southern Africa. Two years of erratic rain and drought have combined with one of the most powerful El Niño events in 50 years to wreak havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable children,” said Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala, southern Africa regional director of the UN children’s agency, Unicef.
“Governments are responding with available resources, but this is an unprecedented situation. The situation is aggravated by rising food prices, forcing families to implement drastic coping mechanisms such as skipping meals and selling off assets.”
In a joint statement, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network said: “El Niño will have a devastating effect on southern Africa’s harvests and food security in 2016. The current rainfall season has so far been the driest in the last 35 years.”
Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) said in a briefing paper: “Even if it were to start raining today, the planting window for cereals has already closed in the southern part of the region [Africa] and is fast closing elsewhere. There has been a steep rise in market prices of imported staple goods. This is restricting access to food for the most vulnerable.”
According to the World Health Organisation, the heavy rains expected from El Niño in Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay and southern Brazil could increase the spread of the Zika virus. “The Aedes aegypti mosquito breeds in standing water. We could expect more mosquito vectors which can spread Zika virus because of expanding and favourable breeding sites [in El Niño-affected countries],” the organisation said.
El Niño conditions, which stem from a natural warming of Pacific Ocean waters, lead to droughts, floods and more frequent cyclones across the world every few years. This year’s event is said by meteorologists to be the worst in 35 years and is now peaking. Although it is expected to decline in strength over the next six months, its effects on farming, health and livelihoods in developing countries could last two years or more because of failed harvests and prolonged flooding.
“Insufficient rains since March 2015 have resulted in drought conditions. In Central America, El Niño conditions have led to a second consecutive year of drought – one of the region’s most severe in history,” said an Ocha spokesman.
“Mozambique and southern African countries face a disaster if the rains do not come within a few weeks,” said Abdoulaye Balde, WFP country director in Maputo. “South Africa is 6m tonnes short of food this year. But it is the usual provider of food reserves in the region. If they have to import 6m tonnes for themselves, there will be little left for other countries. The price of food will rise dramatically.”
Zimbabwe, which declared a national emergency this month, has seen harvests devastated and food prices soar, according to the WFP in Harare. It reports that food production has halved compared to last year and maize is 53% more expensive. It expects to need nearly $1.6bn in aid to help pay for grain and other food after the drought.
Malawi is experiencing its first maize deficit in a decade, pushing the price 73% higher than the December 2015 average. In Mozambique, prices were 50% higher than last year. The country depends on food imports from South Africa and Zimbabwe, and faces a disaster if rains do not arrive in the next few weeks, said Balde.
Fears are also growing that international donors have been preoccupied by Syria and the Ebola crisis, and have not responded to food aid requests from affected countries.
“El Niño began wreaking havoc last year. The government has done its best to tackle the resultant drought on its own, by tapping into the national food reserves and allocating more than $300m [£210m] to buy wheat in the international market,” said Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Ghebreyesus.
“But the number of people in need of food assistance has risen very quickly, making it difficult for Ethiopia to cope alone. For the 10.2 million people in need of aid, requirements stood at $1.4bn. The Ethiopian government has so far spent $300m and a similar sum has been pledged by donors. The gap is about $800m,” he said.
According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, set up by the US international development agency, USAID, in 1985, continued below-average rainfall and high temperatures are likely to persist in southern African well into 2016, with the food crisis lasting into 2017.