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The effects of a super El Niño are set to put the world’s humanitarian system under an unprecedented level of strain in 2016 as it already struggles to cope with the fallout from conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere.
Oxfam estimates the El Niño weather system could leave tens of millions of people facing hunger, water shortages and disease next year if early action isn’t taken to prepare vulnerable people from its effects.
It’s already too late for some regions to avoid a major emergency. In Ethiopia, the government estimates that 10.2 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2016, at a cost of $1.4 billion, due to a drought that's been exacerbated by El Niño. Oxfam is planning to reach 777,000 people there to make sure they have access to clean water, sanitation facilities and emergency food and livelihood support but faces a funding gap of $25 million.
Elsewhere, the situation is serious and deteriorating, and urgent early action is required to prevent a slide into crisis that would put the humanitarian system under enormous strain.
Jane Cocking, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Director said: “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.
“Aid agencies are already stretched responding to the crises in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen. We cannot afford to allow other large-scale emergencies to develop elsewhere. If the world waits to respond to emerging crises in southern Africa and Latin America, we will not be able to cope.”
The humanitarian system is under unprecedented pressure at present. The UN says the number of people forced to flee their homes because of conflict has reached 60 million, a level previously unknown in the post-World War II era.
Food shortages are expected to peak in southern Africa in February. South Africa has already declared several provinces as disaster areas due to drought. Malawi’s national food security forecast for 2015–2016 estimates 2.8 million people will require humanitarian assistance before March.
Two million people across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua already need food aid after drought and erratic rains. With floods expected in Central America in January, the situation will likely deteriorate further.
Governments and donors could be taking steps now to help people cope with drought or flooding including conserving soil and water, reducing herds of livestock to more manageable sizes and ensuring the early treatment of cases of malnutrition. A recent study by the UK’s Department for International Development showed that on average these kinds of measures reduced the cost of responding to an emergency by 40 percent per person.
El Niño is a natural phenomenon that occurs every 7 to 8 years. It takes its name from the Spanish term for the Christ child after its effects were noted in South America around the Christmas season.
Although El Niño is not directly caused by climate change, global warming makes it more likely that strong El Niños will develop. And in turn, El Niños involve the release of a large amount of heat from the Pacific Ocean, exacerbating climate change.
The effects of this year's strong El Niño should serve as a reminder to world leaders that they will need to continue to take strong climate action if they are to keep global warming to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Further commitments are also needed to ensure there's sufficient climate adaptation finance for vulnerable communities to adapt to increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather.