Surviving El Niño

The worst drought in 35 years. Ruined crops. Livestock lying dead in parched river beds. The risk of torrential flooding and deadly mudslides on the rise. As hunger becomes more widespread and food less plentiful, millions of people’s livelihoods, even lives, are in grave jeopardy.

Across much of southern and east Africa, the intense effects of El Niño – a global weather event caused by rising sea surface temperatures – are leaving a wide wake of devastation. And, as with all such disasters, children and women are suffering most of all.

Already, one million children are experiencing severe acute malnutrition (SAM) – a condition from which few young children can recover if they do not receive immediate treatment. 

In Ethiopia, where 10 million people are affected by drought, an estimated 435,000 children are at risk and will require urgent treatment for SAM. In Malawi, almost half of all children under five are already stunted and at risk of developing SAM. In Zimbabwe, malnutrition rates in children are among their highest in 15 years.

In Lesotho, severe water shortages are taking an especially high toll on women, children, people with disabilities and the elderly.

In southern Africa, huge areas of cropland devastated by drought and poor harvests last year have sent maize prices sky rocketing, bringing rural communities to their knees following the hottest temperatures in the last decade. The forthcoming harvest in southern parts of Mozambique and Zimbabwe is forecast to be a total failure.  

In many countries, resources are reaching their limits. National capacities, stressed by economic hardships on top of drought, are strained to the breaking point – greatly constraining the ability of governments to expand safety nets and other social protection systems.

Even in Ethiopia, which has among the most sophisticated safety net systems on the continent, and where the government has invested more than US$380 million since last year – US$272 million since January 2016 – to protect its people from this crisis, needs are rapidly outstripping resources.  

Relief programmes are being scaled up to meet rising needs, but to save lives and prevent decades of development progress from being irreversibly eroded, more must be done. We need to provide more people with desperately needed cash and food assistance. We need to reach more children with specialised nutritional support to stop greater numbers from becoming malnourished. And we need to expand social safety nets that buffer the impact of this crisis, such as school feeding programmes so children from poor families get at least one good meal a day. The urgency of the situation is irrefutable. But humanitarian aid is not keeping pace with the tremendous needs. Not even close. In fact, there is a staggering funding gap – and it is a tragedy in the making. 

UNICEF’s appeals for El Niño relief in east and southern Africa are only 22 per cent funded. Zimbabwe is approaching a near total funding gap – and Swaziland and Lesotho have received no funding at all. 

In southern Africa, the World Food Programme has received only one-third of the funding it needs for the next six months, with US$200 million urgently needed. Alarmingly, this figure does not reflect new requirements now being assessed in communities where drought has decimated prospects for next month’s main harvest.

The overall shortfall for all humanitarian needs in Ethiopia until the end of 2016 stands at US$670 million. Most of this is for food and nutrition assistance. 

The combination of growing funding needs and dwindling resources is a recipe for catastrophe. It cannot go on without tremendous and terrible consequences.    Certainly, international donors are besieged by ever-growing competition for humanitarian resources in a world where needs generated by prolonged conflicts, chronic crises and climate-change related emergencies are on the rise. But among these competing needs, Africa must be a priority. 

The cost of inaction is enormous. Cost of Hunger in Africa studies commissioned by the African Union reveal the impact of undernutrition on productivity in countries that cannot afford economic setbacks: more than 16 per cent of Gross Domestic Product lost in Ethiopia each year; in Malawi, more than 10 percent. 

Behind and beyond these statistics is the toll in human lives. Child mortality associated with undernutrition has reduced workforces across Africa by up to 14 percent. Stunting and undernutrition affect not only physical health but also cognitive capacity, reducing children’s ability to learn and, when they become adults, to support their families. 

Action must be geared towards short-term interventions and longer-term initiatives that protect people from drought and other shocks. Aid should be tailored to provide vital food and cash assistance as well as nutritional support to prevent children from succumbing to severe acute malnutrition. Resilience programmes that protect children, their families and communities need to be expanded.

We know these measures will save lives – if we act now to help the most affected countries put them in place. 

The time to act is now – before it is too late to stop a looming disaster from becoming a catastrophe for the people of Africa. 

Ertharin Cousin is the executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme, while Anthony Lake is Unicef executive director. Lake is currently on mission in Ethiopia.

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