With Ethiopia battling its worst drought in 30 years due to the El Niño weather pattern, with 8.2 million people already in urgent need of food aid, the United Nations has sent an emergency health team to help support the Government’s response to a crisis that is expected to become even worse over the next eight months.
“The food security emergency is coming against a background of multiple ongoing epidemics in the country,” the interim Director of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response at the UN World Health Organization (WHO), Michelle Gayer, on 4 December 2015 said.
“This creates an additional burden for people’s health as well as the health system as malnutrition, especially in children, predisposes them to more severe infectious disease, which can kill quickly,” she added.
The current El Niño, among the strongest on record, caused by a cyclical warming in the Pacific Ocean, affects climate over a wide swathe of the world, bringing more floods to some areas and longer droughts to others, as well as stronger typhoons and cyclones.
Ethiopia has experienced two poor growing seasons in 2015. Due to delayed rains attributed to El Niño, its main annual harvest was severely reduced.
Every month since January has seen an increase in the number of malnourished children, with 400,000 likely to face severe malnutrition in 2016. In addition, some 700,000 expecting and recent mothers are at risk for severe malnutrition.
Anticipating a major increase in health risks, WHO has mobilized drugs, equipment and human resources. Vulnerable populations, such as children requiring therapeutic feeding and health care, are particularly at risk of illness and death.
El Niño can lead to significant increases in diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, diarrhoea and cholera – major killers of children.
Ethiopia is one of the most affected countries by El Niño thus far.
“We are very concerned that right now, there are not enough resources to provide an effective and coordinated health response across Ethiopia,” WHO Emergency Response Coordinator in Ethiopia Kebba Jaiteh said. “Without a proper response, El Niño could reverse years of progress on health for Ethiopians.”
WHO and partners predict increases in communicable, water- and vector-borne diseases and medical complications from malnutrition, and there are also concerns about increasing cases of acute watery diarrhoea.
Many disease outbreaks are currently ongoing with response already being organized by the Ethiopian Health Ministry and partners.
After a recent measles outbreak, the Ministry and partners started vaccinating 5.3 million children under five in hotspot districts, but a significant funding gap remains for those between five and 14 years.
While response plans are still being finalized, WHO estimates its initial funding request will require more than $8 million.
“This is just the beginning of what the health sector is going to need in the coming months to address the health consequences of El Niño in Ethiopia, across the Horn of Africa, southern Africa and in many other parts of the world,” Dr. Gayer said.
Massive El Niño Strengthens
Following the devastating impact of El Niño, the United Nations relief wing on On 2 December 2015, announced that the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has provided some $76 million for life-saving activities in response to drought, drought-like conditions, floods and related insecurity, and other disasters in East Africa, Southern Africa, the Pacific Islands, South East Asia and Central America throughout 2015.
According to a news release issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the climatic event El Niño has impacted millions of people across the globe throughout 2015, and they will continue to be at risk of extreme weather, including below-normal rains in some areas and flooding in others, in early 2016.
OCHA said that the humanitarian fallout in certain areas will include increased food insecurity due to low crop yields and rising prices; higher malnutrition rates; devastated livelihoods; and forced displacement.
According to the news release, the CERF has been one of the quickest and largest supporters of early humanitarian response to climate-related events linked to El Niño.
As of today, CERF has provided relief funding for: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ($6.3 million), El Salvador ($3 million), Eritrea ($2.5 million), Ethiopia ($25.5 million), Haiti ($3 million), Honduras ($2.3 million), Malawi ($9.9 million), Myanmar ($10.5 million), Somalia ($4.9 million) and Zimbabwe ($8.1 million).
The current El Niño, a weather pattern of devastating droughts and catastrophic floods that can affect tens of millions of people around the globe, is expected to strengthen further by year’s end, on track to be one of the three strongest in 65 years, according to the latest update from the United Nations weather agency, the UN on 16 November 2015 reported.
But the world is better prepared than ever to deal with the phenomenon, caused by the cyclical warming of the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, even though global warming has added a wild card to forecasting the severity of its impact, UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Michel Jarraud on 16 November told a news conference in Geneva.
“It’s not entirely clear how El Niño interacts with the changing climate,” he said, warning that it is playing out in uncharted territory due to global warming. “Even before the onset of El Niño, global average surface temperatures had reached new records. El Niño is turning up the heat even further.”
Based on advice from National Meteorological and Hydrological Services, the worst affected countries are already planning for the impact on agriculture, fisheries, water and health, and implementing disaster management campaigns to save lives and minimize economic damage and disruption, he added.
“Severe droughts and devastating flooding being experienced throughout the tropics and sub-tropical zones bear the hallmarks of this El Niño, which is the strongest for more than 15 years,” he said, noting that peak three-month average surface water temperatures in the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean will exceed 2 degrees Celsius above normal.
But, he stressed: “We are better prepared for this event than we have ever been in the past.”
Various UN agencies have already issued warnings about the current El Niño, in which oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system significantly impacts global weather, from increased rain and flooding in the southern United States and Peru to drought in the West Pacific and devastating brush fires in Australia.
Last week the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water in eastern and southern Africa alone, while the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said 2.3 million people in Central America will need food aid as El Niño exacerbates a prolonged drought.
Jarraud released the update on the eve of an international scientific conference in New York, co-sponsored by WMO, which seeks to increase scientific understanding of El Niño the event and its impact, and boost resilience to anticipated global socio-economic shocks.
“Our planet has altered dramatically because of climate change, the general trend towards a warmer global ocean, the loss of Arctic sea ice and of over a million square kilometres of summer snow cover in the northern hemisphere. So this naturally occurring El Niño event and human induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways which we have never before experienced,” he warned.
El Niño has already been associated with a number of major impacts, including coral bleaching hitting US coral reefs disproportionately hard, and tropical cyclones in the Western and Eastern North Pacific basins, such as last month’s Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, reportedly the most intense tropical cyclone in the western hemisphere.
In South East Asia, El Niño is typically associated with drought and has helped fuel wildfires in Indonesia, among the worst on record, causing dense haze there and in neighbouring countries, with significant repercussions for health.
In South Asia, it is believed to have played a key role in a shortfall in rain and Southern Africa countries also report below average rainfall, drought conditions and fears of food insecurity.
In South America, El Niño tends to increase rainfall. In 1997-98 rains in central Ecuador and Peru were more than 10 times the normal, causing flooding, extensive erosion and deadly mudslides, destruction of homes and infrastructure, and damage to food supplies.