Climate change and hunger: El Niño could push us into unchartered waters

Millions of poor people face hunger and poverty this year and next because of droughts and erratic rains as global temperatures reach record levels and because of the onset of a powerful El Niño, the climatic phenomenon that develops in the tropical Pacific which can bring extreme weather to several regions.

I’ve written about El Niño in previous blogs and about the danger that rising sea surface temperatures are increasing the odds of powerful El Niños happening. And this one certainly seems like it will be a humdinger; possibly the most powerful since the strong El Niño of 1997/98.

El Niños don’t necessarily cause serious climatic disruption – there are many other influences on climate patterns – but they do increase the odds, especially in Southern Africa, Central America and parts of Asia and the Pacific.

What makes this year’s El Niño especially dangerous is that it is happening on top of rising global temperatures. Last year record high temperatures – it was the warmest year on record - seemed to create an El Niño effect, although an actual El Niño did not develop. Growing seasons in Southern Africa and Central America behaved as if one was occurring; rains were late and erratic and there were serious crop failures in several countries.

Climate change and El Niño map.

So if the current El Niño does have the anticipated impacts, the rains will be bad again in these regions which will mean a second successive year of crop failure. That would bring even greater food insecurity for millions of people. The countries currently suffering most, and likely to be worst hit again, include Zimbabwe – where 1.5 million people are currently hungry - and Malawi. There some 2 million people were been hit by extensive floods and by drought in 2014/15, and now by rising prices for the staple crop of maize. The lean season will start as early as January for most and continue well into April.

Ethiopia too is already facing what the Oxfam Country Director has described as “the start of a major emergency, which is expected to be serious and long” due to poor rains. But what is happening in Ethiopia may also show the way forward in making sure that drought does not result in deaths from hunger or impoverishment of communities so that they become vulnerable to future climate shocks.

Prevention measures being taken by the Government and international agencies like Oxfam include cash-for-work, water for people and animals, fodder and livestock vaccination. As a result the situation is not as bad as it might have been by now.

National governments and international donors, including the UK, need to step up support for such-like prevention and preparation programmes so that these can be scaled up. At the moment it seems that the implications of the chronic droughts and El Niño have not been fully appreciated.  In Ethiopia, Southern Africa and Central America Oxfam staff report that donors seem reluctant to fund prevention work, saying they are over-stretched and have other and higher-profile emergencies to deal with. However, relatively small amounts of money spent now are likely to be much more cost-effective than waiting until the only option is to provide emergency relief.

The El Niño is likely to mean that 2015 will be even hotter than 2014, and that 2016 will be unusually hot too. In light of the way in which climate change is already increasing temperature and rainfall extremes, preparedness, prevention and social protection will become ever more crucial to enable communities across the world to adapt.  

But ultimately any level of preparation and adaptation will be thwarted unless at the next climate change talks in Paris, world leaders create a universal and legally binding agreement to mitigate carbon emissions and limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Currently the world is on track for at least 3 degrees of warming which would be globally catastrophic.  

This entry posted by John Magrath (@JFMagrath), Oxfam Program Researcher, on 1 October 2015.

Photo at top: Aissata Abdoul Diop, a member of the Diawoud community women's cooperative, showing how the maize ears dried in her drought stricken garden, during the West Africa food crisis of 2012. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

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Read the Oxfam report: Entering Uncharted Waters: El Niño and the threat to food security

Blog: The road to zero hunger runs through Paris

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