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El Niño will hit poorer countries hard, agencies warn

08 January 2016


Loaded up: families begin their journey home from a food-distribution site in Denkena Kebele, Meket Woreda, Ethiopia, last month

Loaded up: families begin their journey home from a food-distribution site in Denkena Kebele, Meket Woreda, Ethiopia, last month

TENS of millions of people are facing starvation as severe droughts and flooding continue to destroy harvests and raise food prices in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia, aid agencies have warned.

The cause of the disruption is El Niño, an extreme weather pattern that affects global temperatures and ocean currents, which is estimated to occur every three to six years.

Oxfam UK’s humanitarian director, Jane Cocking, said that this “super El Niño” will have a “major impact” on millions of people, and will be at its most intense from February to April.

In Ethiopia, the phenomenon has caused lingering droughts, which may affect more than 18 million people this year. The UN estimates that 350,000 children will suffer severe malnourishment, and require intense medical and nutritional treatment to survive.

The Ethiopian government has already set aside £130 million, and is distributing limited food stocks.

On Christmas Day, Christian Aid approved the release of £50,000 of emergency funds to the country, for food, water, sanitation, and agricultural supplies. On Monday, the charity’s head of humanitarian programmes in Africa, Maurice Onyango, described the situation as “alarming”.

“The scale and magnitude of the crisis is unprecedented in terms of intensity and coverage. It is a critical situation,” he said. “Water shortages caused by poor rainfalls have left farmers unable to produce any harvests over two consecutive planting seasons. Meanwhile, farmers are running short of fodder for cattle: we have seen hundreds and thousands of livestock die in rural and pastoralist areas.”

Agriculture accounts for 38 per cent of Ethiopia’s GDP, and 80 per cent of nationwide employment, reports from the think tank the Atlantic Council suggest. Droughts are therefore likely to have a severe impact on the economy, it said, despite the country’s being listed among the fastest-growing in the world between 2013 and 2014, and having GDP growth of about ten per cent.

The charity Send a Cow is helping farmers in the country to adapt to extreme and unpredictable weather. The Country Director, Aklilu Dogisso, said: “Those in the north are currently going hungry after two seasons of poor rainfall. Those in the rest of the country are struggling with unusually heavy rains: in some areas, the army has been deployed, and children sent home from school to harvest crops before the rains destroy them.”

In Afar, in the north-east, one of the worst-affected areas, the deaths of thousands of animals and the soaring cost of food has left people desperate, the agency Ethiopiaid said. Alexandra Chapman, who chairs the trustees, said that families in these areas were “scared” of what lies ahead.

“Pregnant mothers and young children are the most at risk, and vulnerable to severe malnutrition, dehydration, disease, and ultimately death,” he said. “The situation is deteriorating rapidly, and we need to act now to provide the emergency aid they so desperately need.”

Ethiopiaid has committed £80,000 to support its partners, including the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), which has identified 700 remote households in need of urgent support to prevent starvation.

Last month, the International Development Minister, Nick Hurd, announced that the UK is to provide £30 million to alleviate the effects of the crisis. Half of this will be set aside for emergency food-supplies through the UN World Food Programme for about 1.9 million people; the rest will be divided between UN agencies and NGOs to provide emergency water and health care.

The World Meteorological Organization estimates that this is one of the three most powerful El Niños ever recorded. The resulting drought in Ethiopia is thought to be the most destructive since the 1980s.

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