Blog Post

El Niño to Have Long-term Development Impacts, Report Says

The 2015-2016 El Niño cycle has had devastating effects in many developing regions, including across much of Africa south of the Sahara. According to a new report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, El Niño has affected 60 million people worldwide, and 23 countries have issued response plans costing upwards of US$ 5 billion in national funding and international aid.

El Niño has caused poor or failed harvests in many areas, forcing vulnerable households to sell productive assets and forego meals. In Africa south of the Sahara, calls for humanitarian aid to help farmers and rural households deal with livelihood loss and food insecurity have been particularly strong. For example, Ethiopia has requested $1.6 billion to assist 9.5 million people impacted by ongoing drought through December 2016. Similarly, Zimbabwe has recently increased its request for aid to cover an additional 1.3 million people, according to the report.

While the US Climate Prediction Center is forecasting neutral weather conditions (meaning neither an El Niño nor a La Niña cycle) for the rest of 2016 and the start of 2017, the damage done already to crops and livelihoods will likely have long-term development impacts. The report highlights several of these impacts, including increases in water-borne diseases due to flooding; increased malnutrition due to crop failures, displacement of large populations and subsequent interruption in health services and education, and increased competition and conflict over scarce resources like drinking water and pasture land.

The report also provides a regional overview for several regions most hard-hit by the weather event; these include East Africa and Southern Africa.

In East Africa , Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan were among the worst affected countries. In Ethiopia, the summer rains beginning in June alleviated dry conditions in some (but not all) drought-stricken areas of the country, and FEWS Net has estimated that the October harvest will be close to average nationally. However, over the past year, Ethiopia has faced a combination of severe drought and severe flooding; both are expected to continue with the onset of La Niña conditions in mid-2017, according to the report. These conditions have impacted large populations of the country in a variety of ways. For example, heavy rains in August impacted more than 771,000 people across seven regions, limiting access to safe drinking water and increasing the spread of diarrhea. Meanwhile, drought in other areas of the country limited spring harvests and increased food prices , forcing many poor households into food insecurity. The number of people countrywide estimated to require humanitarian assistance is 9.7 million, for a total of $1.6 billion through December 2016, according to the report. As of September, 63 percent of that need has been funded through a combination of government funding and funding from humanitarian partners.

In Southern Africa , El Niño has resulted in prolonged dry conditions, poor harvests, and crop failures. As a result, food prices have risen, reducing poor households’ purchasing power and leading to mass migrations of large populations in search of employment, food, and water. In Malawi, maize production has been below average in the southern and central regions. According to the report, this has driven up maize prices and limited food access for the poorest households, which rely on maize for their main food consumption. Acute food insecurity is expected to continue in October as a result of high maize prices and lack of income-earning opportunities. The report estimates that about 6.5 million people in Malawi will require humanitarian assistance until March 2017. Drought has also impacted Zimbabwe, causing poor harvests and decreased water availability and forcing poor households to rely on the market for their food supply. Decreased agricultural production has also lowered rural households’ purchasing power. According to the report, female-headed households are more vulnerable to negative coping strategies like skipping meals or selling assets. (For more information on gender inequalities in resilience, read Malawi’s Women Face Barriers to Climate-Smart Agriculture and Climate Change Adaptation Requires Gender Inclusion .) Findings from the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee, coordinated by the Government of Zimbabwe’s Food and Nutrition Council, have projected that as many as 4.1 million people will remain food-insecure during the upcoming peak hunger season, which is expected to run from January- March 2017.

The report emphasizes that the 2015-2016 El Niño cycle could impact development (including nutrition, education, health, and incomes) in poor rural areas over the long term and thus requires a long-term strategy, not just short-term emergency food aid.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI