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Millions at risk of starvation as full impact of El Niño is felt

Monday January 18, 2016

Tens of millions of people in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean are likely to face starvation in the first six months of this year as the El Niño cycle reaches its peak and makes its full impact felt. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Tens of millions of people in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean are likely to face starvation in the first six months of this year as the El Niño cycle reaches its peak and makes its full impact felt.

Humanitarian agencies have warned of a major food crisis in 2016 if action is not taken to prevent this impending calamity, as well as water shortages and disease outbreaks.

Most of East Africa is already stressed in terms of food security, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet).

Parts of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Sudan are already in the crisis and emergency stages on the hunger scale, with millions of people needing food assistance.

Fewsnet has also reported that Ethiopia is the most affected country, with a serious risk of famine.

The country is currently experiencing the worst drought in more than 50 years, which is expected to put at least 15 million people in desperate need of food aid in the first half of this year.

Already, aid agencies have issued a food security emergency alert, with areas most affected listed as Southern Afar and Northern Somali, which are already in the emergency stage on the hunger scale (IPC Phase 4).

“It’s already too late for some regions to avoid a major emergency,” says aid agency Oxfam. “It will cost at least $1.4 billion (Sh143 billion) to respond to the emergency in Ethiopia.”

The drought has been worsened by the super El Niño that is sweeping across the world. Oxfam says it intends to reach at least 777,000 people to provide them with water, sanitation and food aid.

“Millions of people in places like Ethiopia, Haiti and Papua New Guinea are already feeling the effects of drought and crop failure.

"We urgently need to get help to these areas to make sure people have enough food and water,” said Jane Cocking, Oxfam’s humanitarian director.

“Ethiopia is a disaster in the making. The longer it takes for humanitarian assistance to reach the people in need, the greater the impact of the drought becomes,” said Geir Olav Lisle, the deputy secretary-general at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Other countries of great concern are South Sudan and Yemen, both of which are affected by conflict.

Nigeria, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Haiti, Central America and the Southern Africa region are also on the hunger watch list.

In Sudan, the Blue Nile region and South Kordofan state are the most affected, with the food security situation said to be deteriorating.

Harvests are projected to be very low, worsened by the ongoing El Niño.

Food insecurity is expected to worsen later in the year.

And then there’s Southern Africa.


The region is expected to begin experiencing food shortages as early as February, and South Africa has already declared several provinces disaster areas due to the El Niño drought.

“Aid agencies are already stretched responding to the crises in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen. We cannot afford other large-scale emergencies developing elsewhere. If the world waits to respond to emerging crises in southern Africa and Latin America, we will not be able to cope,” says Oxfam.

The drought in South Africa is the worst since 1982, with at least 2.7 million people facing food and water shortages.

The lack of rain occasioned high temperatures in many parts of South Africa.

Johannesburg and Pretoria, for instance, recorded their highest temperatures ever, with 36°C and 39.8°C respectively. Johannesburg has even started rationing water, with some reports saying that shower times have been limited to just three minutes to save water.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has already issued an alert for Southern Africa, saying that the reduced harvests will greatly affect food security.

The region’s small-scale farmers are almost entirely dependent on rain, making their harvests highly susceptible to its variations.


While El Niño’s impact depends highly on location and season — the impact of El Niño on agricultural production appears more muted in the northern areas — strong episodes have been associated with reduced production in several countries, including South Africa, which is the largest cereal producer in the sub-region and typically exports maize to the neighbouring countries.

South Africa has already declared drought in five provinces, its main cereal-producing regions, while Lesotho has issued a drought mitigation plan and Swaziland has implemented water restrictions since reservoir levels have shrunk.

Farmers are the worst hit by the drought. Lack of rain leads to crop failure, meaning no income for them.

Some large-scale farmers have cut down on staff to reduce costs.

Food prices are already rising, and are expected to rise further in the first few months of the year, mostly because they will be imported.

Reports from South Africa say that the cost of maize meal has risen by 14 per cent, and the cost of bread by 7 per cent.

Eggs and chicken are up 15 per cent and 4 per cent respectively. FAO reports that the increase in the price of maize has already hit 50 per cent.


Maize is the staple crop in South Africa and the drought has cost the maize industry a total of R12 billion (Sh72 billion) in lost revenue. The sugar industry has lost R2 billion (Sh12 billion).

In Malawi, the national food security forecast for 2016 estimates that 2.9 million people will need emergency food aid before March.

Fewsnet says that up to 2.8 million people are likely to face acute food shortage in Malawi alone.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe will record significantly lower maize harvests, straining food security.

Other countries affected by the El Niño drought in Southern Africa are Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique.

The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that at least 11 million children will face starvation as a result.

But whether an El Niño brings heavy rainfall or not depends on where you are in relation to the equator.

Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Congo and Gabon are among the 13 countries around the world that straddle the Equator, meaning that El Niño will almost always bring rain in these countries, but the intensity will vary, depending on the strength of the El Niño.

“The countries that fall off the equator often experience dry spells, with worse droughts further from the equator. This is why Southern Africa and Australia are experiencing a really bad drought,” says Mr Simon Muhindi of FAO.

The El Niño’s effects, whether drought or floods, are expected to seriously strain food security and humanitarian systems across the world.


Historically, the impact of El Niño on East Africa has been varied, ranging from floods — which affected 3.4 million people in 2006/2007 — to droughts, which affected 14 million people in 2009/2010.

While there are sub-regional differences, historical comparisons show that overall humanitarian needs in the region are higher in El Niño years than non-El Niño years.

In the 2015/2016 El Niño cycle, at least 300,000 people have been displaced by flooding across the region, and more than 100 people have died in floods in Kenya.

A further two million people remain at risk of more flooding in East Africa.

According to an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) report, the numbers of those who are food-insecure rose by 64 per cent, from 11.3 million in August to 18.5 million in December 2015.

These, according to Igad, require urgent food assistance.

While the Ethiopian government already has the $1.4 billion (Sh143 billion) it needs to avert a famine in the country, Kenya and Somalia both need $15 million (Sh105 billion) and $30 million (Sh210 billion) respectively, which they don’t have.

“This humanitarian crisis in Eastern Africa is threatening the regional development and resilience gains as it comes against the backdrop of a wider humanitarian crisis; the geographic confluence of sustained conflict levels – localised economic shocks, particularly in South Sudan, continue to exacerbate humanitarian needs,” said Igad Executive Secretary Mehboub Maalim.

The UN says the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict has hit 60 million, a level previously unknown in the post-World War II era.

The UK’s Department for International Development said it had pledged to provide emergency support for 2.6 million people and 120,000 children beginning this month.

“If we fail to act now against this especially powerful El Niño, we will fail vulnerable people across our world,” Development Minister Nick Hurd said in a statement.

“Ensuring security for those affected by El Niño is important to their countries but also in Britain’s national interest.

"Only by protecting and stabilising vulnerable countries can we ensure people are not forced to leave their homes in search of food or a new livelihood,” he added.

El Niños are often followed by La Niña cycles, which can have the opposite but similarly harmful effects.

Countries currently experiencing severe drought from El Niño are likely to experience flooding in 2016 as a result of La Niña.

FAO warns that there is an increased risk of a Rift Valley fever (RVF) outbreak in East Africa this year following the El Niño floods.

The floods create habitats for mosquitoes, which spread RVF, a disease that affects livestock.


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