Whilst the impacts of El Niño on climate and global agriculture have been well covered, its effects on health and nutrition have been less prevalent. Droughts caused by the latest event have led to acute malnutrition in countries of Southern Africa, whilst ongoing climate impacts threaten food security worldwide.
The latest El Niño event – one of the most severe episodes in the last 50 years – has been in full swing since the middle of 2015. The phenomenon is affecting the food security of 60 million people worldwide, half of whom live in Southern Africa. This event is just a taster of what the developing world can expect in the future, as climate change begins to bite.
Occurring every 2-7 years, El Niño events are characterised by warming of the ocean surface off the coast of South America in the equatorial Pacific. These events have an impact on the climate around the world, although the nature of this impact varies by region. It generally causes droughts in Southern Africa, the Caribbean, India and Indonesia, and flooding on the western coast of South America, and in equatorial Eastern Africa and the southern United States.
According to FAO, agricultural and nutritional consequences of this latest episode are being felt particularly acutely in the Horn of Africa (10.2 million people affected in Ethiopia and 4.7 million people in Somalia) and in Southern Africa (30 million people). Severe impacts have also been observed in the Caribbean, South East Asia and the Pacific islands.
Ethiopia is the most severely affected country, where a record-breaking drought affected around 80% of harvests in 2015. In Zimbabwe, a country once seen as the breadbasket of Africa, some 33,000 children (most aged 1-2 years old) are currently suffering from acute malnutrition as a result of this latest El Niño event. FAO has also identified a number of other ‘high priority’ countries, including Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. ‘At risk’ countries also include Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa, Sudan and Tanzania. The UN agency estimates that it will cost €2.1 billion to deal with the fallout of this latest El Niño event, with the funding gap currently standing at €1.3 billion.
Although the latest episode has now passed its peak, the corresponding climate impacts are likely to be felt until the end of 2016, and the number of people at risk of famine continues to grow. According to a recent British study, this type of exceptional event may become a more regular occurrence due to climate change. Led by researchers from Oxford University, this work has modelled the effects of climate change on global agriculture and nutritional consequences. The study, published in The Lancet, revealed that when compared with a scenario without climate change, rising temperatures are likely to lead to a 3.2% reduction in average calorific intake worldwide, a 4% decrease in availability of fruit and vegetables, and a 0.7% fall in meat supply by 2050.
These impacts are expected to cause an additional 529,000 deaths per year including 266,000 as a result of malnutrition – 49% in Africa and 47% in South East Asia.