El Nino: The worst is yet to come

CARE Mozambique asked people in El Nino affected areas what the current drought means for them and their lives. This is what one woman said.

Marc Nosbach, Country Director of CARE in Mozambique, urges the international community to step up its support for millions of people affected by the drought in Southern Africa

“What exactly is El Niño?” I’ve been asked this question more than once in the past months. For many El Niño is an abstract term, but for 40 million people in Southern Africa this weather phenomenon, caused by warm water in the western Pacific moving back eastwards, has very real and concrete ramifications.

They are experiencing the worst drought in 35 years, as this and last season’s rains did not fall at all in many parts of the region.

This has significantly impacted crop and livestock production, cereal prices, water availability and livelihoods. Three-quarters of the population in Southern Africa live in rural areas, with their survival dependent on agriculture and food production. Cereal production in the region has dropped by 23 percent. Half the population in Southern Africa survives on less than 1 US dollar a day. It is impossible for them to buy food, especially with market prices having more than doubled in some countries.

In Mozambique, where I lead CARE’s emergency response, almost two million people are struggling to survive.

Exacerbated by climate change, El Niño is hitting the poorest communities hardest.

The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has called for urgent international assistance. They are appealing for 2.7 billion US dollars to support the humanitarian needs of their people. Governments in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe have declared national emergencies. The scale of the drought has overstretched their ability to respond, with needs outgrowing the available resources. African leaders are now saying loudly and clearly that they require assistance to prevent the severe drought taking a further toll on the lives and livelihoods of the people in their countries.

Although El Niño as a weather phenomenon has reached its peak and is now declining, the impact from its presence is still growing. During the lean season between October and March, millions more people will suffer from hunger.

Their harvests have failed and many have lost their jobs and livelihoods. They do not have any food reserves left and have sold their animals.

One-third of all people living with HIV live in Southern Africa. Without food in their stomachs they cannot take treatment. Furthermore, many decide to spend their limited resources to buy food rather than pay for travel to a health facility.

In some parts of the region health facilities are also now operating without water. At the same time, tens of thousands of cholera cases have been reported and other communicable diseases might spread further due to the lack of water and hygiene. These compound factors are increasingly pushing vulnerable communities over the edge.

In Mozambique’s Inhambane province, one of the most affected areas, I met a mother who told me that her children cannot go to school anymore because they are fainting of hunger.

She is thinking of marrying off her 12-year old daughter as she does not know how to provide food for her anymore. Almost four out of ten children in Southern Africa are already stunted and cannot achieve their full mental and physical potential, simply because they go hungry.

Other children are dropping out of school, spending hours every day to help fetch water and food. Women and girls are affected disproportionately by this crisis.

The last major El Niño almost 20 years ago caused the deaths of around 21,000 people. The destruction worldwide cost around 36 billion US dollars. As a humanitarian I am often asked why organisations do not prepare better; why we do not draw more attention to the need for support before disaster strikes. The truth is: we do.

We already warned over a year ago that countries like Mozambique would be hit hard and that we need to work with communities to build their resilience and better handle future shocks.

The good news is that there are ways to prepare people for droughts.

In addition to responding quickly to critical food, water, nutrition, health and livelihoods requirements, CARE’s work is focused on building climate resilience and the capacity to respond to future shocks. Families who learnt new agricultural practices and were provided with improved, drought-resistant seeds are now managing to survive much better than those who were not part of these resilience programmes.

We know that adaptation to climate change works. But CARE and other organisations simply do not have enough funding to support all people in need. And the bitter reality is that for now, the international community, donors and heads of state do not seem to realise the urgency of what the buzz-word El Niño actually means for the people here. There almost seems to be some kind of assumption that this is something that we are “used to” in Africa.

But people starving and dying of hunger should not be something one ever gets “used to”.

In past years, developmental gains were hard-won in this part of the world. However, without urgent action these successes will unravel quickly with rising levels of poverty. Recovering them in the aftermath of El Niño will take decades and be far more expensive. Immediate action is required to stabilise the situation and ensure communities have a bright future.

By Marc Nosbach, Country Director of CARE in Mozambique

Below: Lise Tonelli, CARE Emergency Team Leader in Mozambique, explains the current situation (July 2016) and CARE’s response:

Donate now

CARE's picture

News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.