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Posted by Tendai Mugani on March 31, 2016 9:00 AM SAST
Tendai Mugani photo

According to the Oxfam briefing, millions of poor and vulnerable people face hunger and poverty this year and next because of record global temperatures, droughts and erratic rains in 2014 and 2015, compounded by the development of possibly the most powerful El Niño on record in recent years[1]. Harvests and livelihoods have failed as drought has taken hold across equatorial regions – in Ethiopia, much of Southern Africa, the spine of Central America and parts of the Caribbean, South America, Asia and the Pacific. This is causing real suffering and pushing people who are poor and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change deeper into poverty, loss and extreme vulnerability[2]. There is great need for affected governments, regional bodies and the international community to work together in early response and preparedness in the face of an unfolding crisis.

This is a crisis on a huge global scale. The current El Niño is one of the strongest ever measured, which means there will be more unpredictable weather conditions that will impact people’s food security, lives and livelihoods. This comes on the back of poor growing seasons in 2014/15 in many places. And in the absence of support, conditions will worsen as the impacts of El Niño bite; currently 40–50 million people face hunger, disease and water shortages[3]. Urgent scale-up now will save lives in the worst-affected places. These include areas of Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Malawi, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras. Some people have already lost everything and require urgent food assistance. Early response is required to save livelihoods elsewhere. Many areas of Latin America, Asia, Southern Africa and the Pacific are feeling the effects of El Niño and need assistance. Funding resilience-building interventions now will safeguard health and livelihoods and prevent a descent into destitution above. This is a slow onset crisis – its impacts can be mitigated. The ultimate humanitarian impact depends on the urgency of the response now. Many affected governments have been active in preparation and response, and this is clearly mitigating the impact. This global problem requires national governments, donors and the humanitarian community to immediately come together to coordinate and collaborate on responses across the different countries.

There is need to avoid past mistakes and contain the crisis before it escalates. The last major El Niño event in 1997–98 led to widespread loss of life, destruction of infrastructure, displacement of communities and outbreaks of disease in many parts of the world. Due to the late response to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa in 2011 led to 258,000 deaths in Somalia and massive suffering and loss of livelihoods in Kenya and Ethiopia. Leadership is needed now by national governments, the UN and donors to ensure adequate and early action responses.  Climate change is a key driver of food insecurity, and is super-charging the effects of El Niño. The impacts of climate change are combining with El Niño to devastating effect, and there is evidence that climate change increases the odds of extreme El Niño events occurring.

Long-term solutions must be found beyond urgent needs. Changes to the climate are already contributing to the likelihood and severity of storms, floods, droughts and shifting weather patterns that cause unpredictable growing seasons, crop failures, and food price spikes[4]. These underlying changes are reinforced by the effects of El Niño, which brings more extreme weather. Long term, actions must be taken to reduce vulnerability and exposure, and the inequality which drives this, and to strengthen the capacities of communities at risk in order to be prepared and respond to these events[5]. Major efforts are required to support vulnerable communities to adapt, and this crisis will be the backdrop to this year’s major international climate change conference in Paris. The Sendai Framework ensures those most at risk are able to deal with climate impacts in the future and it also aims to achieve the substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health[6]. The new international climate change agreement for the post-2020 period set to be agreed in Paris must ensure current pledges of emissions cuts are significantly strengthened.

In spite of all this existing knowledge and early warning, one wonders if African governments and disaster management practitioners were adequately prepared for the el Nino. Why do we still have so many food insecure people? Were populations not warned in time? Or did they just disregard the warnings like has been the case in the past? What lessons can we draw from the present crisis to ensure that the next one is skillfully embraced?

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