By Rodney Reynolds
The UK-based charity Oxfam has warned that El Nino has triggered one of the worst droughts in the history of Latin America and the Caribbean causing devastation to food crops and threatening food shortages.
“Families across Latin America are running out of food and options, as farmers report another failed harvest due to intense and unpredictable weather patterns compounded by El Niño,” said Oxfam in a report released May 5.
Currently, at least 3.5 million people in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador do not have enough to eat and, at least 7 million people are affected by El Nino across Latin America and the Caribbean.
The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien said on April 26 that with millions of people across the world affected by droughts, floods and other extreme weather events triggered by El Niño, the international community must act now to address urgent humanitarian needs and support building communities’ resilience to future shocks.
“The current El Niño is one of the strongest on record affecting an estimated 60 million people including some of the most vulnerable in Africa, Asia, Central and South America and the Pacific.”
The impact of El Niño-induced droughts is picking in late 2016 and early 2017. The situation could become even worse if a La Niña event – which often follows an El Niño – strikes towards the end of this year, O’Brien warned.
He said El Niño has already severely affected the health and food security of so many families and communities across the world.
“I am deeply worried about rising acute malnutrition among children under five and the increase in water- and vector-borne diseases. People urgently need food, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene as well as health services,” O’Brien said.
During a visit to Ethiopia last January, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the international community must stand with the people of Ethiopia in their time of need, urging donors to step up assistance to the country, before heading to the drought-stricken region of Oromia where he witnessed first-hand efforts under way to battle the effects of one of the most powerful El Niño events in recorded history.
“The people of this beautiful country are facing their worst drought in thirty years,” Ban told participants at a round table convened in the Ethiopian capital in the margins of the 26th African Union Summit.
According to Oxfam, the recent UN pledging conference in Geneva was a chance to tackle the emergency, but donor pledges still leave over a $1.7 billion funding gap, with needs expected to increase in coming months.
Before new pledges are allocated, El Salvador’s and Honduras’ appeals remain at 9% and 13% funded, respectively.
While El Niño sea temperatures now return to normal, it has already done its damage to global weather systems, and its effects will continue to hit the world’s most vulnerable people for months to come.
Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Director Nahuel Arenas said, “El Niño has put millions of people across Latin America at risk of hunger due to failed harvests that have depleted their food sources and incomes. Governments and international donors must not wait. Their response to this huge slow-onset crisis must be decisive and immediate – but the funding and the urgency still aren’t there.”
Many small scale farmers and their families also rely on work on commercial farms for a large part of their income. But cash crops like coffee, peanuts, bananas and sugar cane are also suffering, so many people have lost their seasonal jobs and consumers have been hit by higher food price.
El Salvador has declared a drought emergency for the first time in history. The dry corridor of the country found that 60% of families face serious food insecurity. It found that 74% of the country’s corn crop has been lost and a 76% loss of beans across the region.
“Poor people age quickly because of worry,” Pablo Hernandez from San Pablo in El Salvador told Oxfam. “Hunger is a stress that you’re carrying all the time. You want to give everything to your children.”
Mercedes Garcia, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Officer in El Salvador, said, “After so many seasons of drought and crop failures, families across El Salvador are now having to sell livestock, eat seeds and starting to exhaust their small savings”.
“Many are now out of options and need urgent support with basic necessities like food and clean water. They also need long term support so they can adapt to future unpredictable weather patterns and start producing again. We must invest more in these forward-looking approaches.”
Oxfam is working through local partners to reach around 50,000 people in El Salvador with food vouchers and water. The vouchers offer respite to people who have little else to turn to. Rosa Yaneth Chavez told Oxfam that her children have a 90-minute walk to school and that “before this program they had to do this without anything in their stomachs. The vouchers were a huge help”.
Meanwhile, 3.6 million people in Haiti and a million in Cuba are also in desperate straits. Flooding has hit several countries in South America.
These numbers are expected to keep rising until the end of the summer, when farmers will have their next harvest and the El Niño weather patterns level off.
Scientists have also tied the spread of Zika, dengue and chikungunya to the sustained higher temperatures and standing water that households have been forced to keep during the drought.
In its report, Oxfam said it is working with partners in 22 countries and calling for international action to meet immediate needs and build up their resistance to extreme weather patterns. This needs to be matched with medium and long-term plans to tackle climate change which makes super El Niños more likely.
“And, as the possibility of La Nina’s extreme, yet opposing weather conditions loom later this year, we must be prepared and able to continue our support. Without urgent action from governments and the international community, we will be facing an even more daunting challenge down the road,” Oxfam said.