Double Shock of El Niño, La Niña Could Affect 100 Million

By Magdalena Mis, Thomson Reuters Foundation

The number of people affected by the combined impact of the El Niño and La Niña weather patterns could exceed 100 million by the end of the year, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that more than 60 million people, two thirds of them in east and southern Africa, are facing food shortages because of droughts linked to El Niño, a climate phenomenon that occurs when water in the Pacific Ocean becomes abnormally warm.

A man walks past the carcass of sheep that died from the El Niño-related drought in Somalia.
Credit: REUTERS/Feisal Omar

The impact of La Niña, when waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean cool after a phase of El Niño, is not as severe - but the weather pattern has also been linked to floods and droughts.

“EL Niño has caused primarily a food and agricultural crisis,” FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva said last week at a meeting of U.N. agencies in Rome to discuss the impact of El Niño in Africa and Asia Pacific.

He said almost $4 billion was needed to meet the humanitarian demands of countries affected by El Niño.

The United Nations has called on governments and the international community to increase efforts to boost the resilience of “highly vulnerable” communities who are struggling to feed themselves, as well as to help them prepare for La Niña.

The FAO was mobilizing extra funding for agriculture, food and nutrition, and to invest in disaster preparedness, he said.

“It [the FAO] will finance early actions that prevent unfolding disasters from happening,” Graziano da Silva said.

Southern Africa had a three-month “window of opportunity” before the 2016/2017 planting season to take urgent measures to prevent millions of rural families becoming dependent on humanitarian assistance in 2018, according to FAO.

Macharia Kamau, U.N. special envoy on El Niño and climate, said a failure to adapt to the “new normal” of increasing climate-related emergencies like El Niño and La Niña would threaten progress on U.N. development goals.

“Both rapid and slow-onset climactic events are exposing years of poor investment and preparedness, demanding a much better financed and integrated response,” Kamau said.

“These climactic events are also exposing the vulnerability of our grand plans for fighting poverty and sustaining our infrastructure,” he said.   

Weather forecasters in Japan, Australia and the United States predict a 50 percent to 75 percent chance of La Niña developing in the second half of 2016.

Reporting by Magdalena Mis; Editing by Jo Griffin