On June 27th the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a report showing that this year’s El Niño is one of the strongest ever recorded, placing 26.5 million children at risk of malnutrition, water shortages, and disease in ten East and Southern African countries. UNICEF only has $127 million of its $226 million goal to be allocated to specific initiatives in affected countries including HIV education and service, child protection services, and lifesaving treatment for malnourished children.
El Niño is a complex series of climatic changes that occurs irregularly every few years affecting primarily the Equatorial Pacific region. It is caused by a periodic warming of sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean, and usually it constitutes unusually warm weather, heavy, but nutrient-poor rainfall in certain regions, and droughts in other regions.
“Children face protection risks as families and communities move in search of work, food, water and grazing land for animals. Children are also finding it difficult to stay in school, due to hunger and/or lack of water,” UNICEF reported in the study. The report also noted that more than one million children are in need of severe acute malnutrition treatment, and that there is a critical need for improved water supplies and sanitation facilities to provide safe service to areas experiencing water shortages.
The East African countries noted in the study are Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Ethiopia is currently experiencing one the worst droughts in decades since the end of 2015 with two failed rain seasons affecting 10.2 million people (6 million of them children) with severe food insecurity and heightened risk of disease because of the lack of clean water. Over 5.9 million people are in need of safe drinking water.
For similar reasons, in conjunction with pre-existing stressors, Eritrea is suffering high levels of malnutrition among children under five—acute malnutrition remains one of the nation’s leading causes of death.
In Somalia, 38% of the population, nearly 4.7 million people, suffer from food insecurity and are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. 1.7 million are affected in the drought areas of Puntland and Somaliland, and although the recent Gu rains, the rainfall during Somalia’s cropping season, has decreased droughts in certain areas, it has created flood risks affecting 45,000 people as of May 2016 with 7,000 cholera cases resulting from unsafe water conditions.
The report’s Southern African countries are Angola, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. Each of these countries except Angola and Madagascar have declared national drought disasters, calling for urgent international assistance. In Southern Africa an estimated 31.6 million people are currently food insecure, and although the April-May harvest this year will temporarily improve food access in certain regions, access will most likely deteriorate again starting in July. 70% of the region’s population depends on agriculture for food, income, and employment, which means poverty is likely to rise.
Governments and international agencies have been responding to this year’s El Niño effects since 2015, but UNICEF asserts that the scale of this crisis severely outweighs nations’ ability to endure it. The study indicates that the effects will most likely spill into 2017, putting decades of development gains in both of these regions at major risk.
UNICEF treated 155,000 children with severe acute malnutrition in the first few months of 2016. Additionally, they provided 2.69 million people with clean water, 82,000 children with protection services, and 100,000 people with HIV education and services. However, the UN agency urgently requests governments and the international community to provide more assistance.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that more than 60 million people will be impacted by El Niño effects this year and the lack of sufficient humanitarian resources will only increase food insecurity from low crop yields and rising prices, as well as higher malnutrition rates, and forced displacement. Sustainable institutions must be established to ensure the livelihood of millions of people–not only for those suffering now, but for those who will inevitably suffer in the future as climate change intensifies and continues to ravage Southern and Eastern Africa.