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Record El Niño Set to Cause Hunger for 10 Million Poorest

By Oliver Milman, The Guardian

At least 10 million of the world’s poorest people are set to go hungry this year because of failing crops caused by one of the strongest El Niño climatic events on record, Oxfam has warned.

The charity said several countries were already facing a “major emergency,” such as Ethiopia, where 4.5 million are in need of food aid because of a prolonged scarcity of rain this year.

Ethiopian children at a food distribution centre. El Niño events have caused crops to fail in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Credit: STR/Reuters/The Guardian

Floods, followed by drought, have slashed Malawi’s maize production by more than a quarter, farmers in central America have suffered from two years of drought and El Niño conditions have already reduced the Asian monsoon over India, potentially triggering a wider drought across the east of the continent.

Indonesia’s government has declared drought in 34 of the country’s provinces because of El Niño, while 2 million people in Papua New Guinea have been affected by crops shrivelling in heat in some parts of the country and severe frosts in its highlands.

El Niño is a periodic climatic phenomenon where waters of the eastern tropical Pacific warm, triggering a range of potential consequences for global weather. While parts of South America are typically doused in heavy rainfall, warmer, drought-like conditions are experienced in Australia, south-east Asia and southern Africa.

The UK Met Office has predicted this year’s El Niño could be the strongest on record since 1950, warning that famine could grip west Africa.

An Oxfam report, called Entering Uncharted Waters, states the El Niño will rival that of 1998, which caused droughts, floods and forest fires that resulted in 2,000 deaths and caused about $33 billion in property damage.

The report warns “major humanitarian emergencies” were possible without proper intervention, pointing out that failure to respond to drought has proved disastrous in recent years, such as 2011 when rains failed in the Horn of Africa and more than 260,000 people died.

Dr. Helen Szoke, the chief executive of Oxfam Australia, said the charity had already started work with communities, including in Papua New Guinea, in an attempt to stave off crop failures.

“We are working with farmers in PNG to plant drought-resistant seeds and to help them with the collection of rainwater,” she said. “Vanuatu is another country where we are doing that work although, cruelly, they’ve already had a head start due to the repairing of water systems due to cyclone Pam.

“Our staff in Zimbabwe and Malawi, for example, are expressing concern about the preparedness of the seasonal crop. People who rely on subsistence farming aren’t necessarily prepared for frosts or drought, which is when food security becomes an issue.

“The poorer countries don’t have the systems in place and are much more vulnerable. Potentially millions of people will be affected by a lack of access to water and if food prices go up, the poor will miss out again.”

El Niño-like conditions were expected last year but failed to materialise. The El Niño now brewing in the Pacific Ocean is expected to end in January but may, in the long term, become more frequent. Research published in Nature Climate Change last year predicted El Niño frequency could double because of climate change fuelled by the release of greenhouse gases.

Last year was the warmest year globally on record, with 2015 and 2016 potentially set to cause this record to topple again.

Szoke said the international community needed to ensure El Niño conditions weren’t replicated every year by changes to rainfall, extreme heat and cyclones caused by climate change.

“We can’t keep just patching up communities,” she said. “We need a long-term vision for climate change. We need to reduce emissions, move away from old technologies and address this issue. We have an opportunity to do that in Paris [at UN climate talks] later this year.”

Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.


2013 Arctic Sea Ice Loss This year's loss won't be quite as dramatic as last year's record, but it's still pretty significant.

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