El Niños, climate phenomena responsible for droughts and floods in parts of the world, have been happening throughout human history. Scientists are still trying to determine their connection to global warming but what is clear is that the combination of a powerful El Niño and climate change is a recipe for disaster. The 2015/2016 El Niño was one of the strongest on record.
The most recent El Niño is over. But the humanitarian crisis it caused is far from finished. Families have lost crops, cattle, tools and livelihoods. Entire communities have been ravaged by drought or displaced by floods. Hundreds of thousands of children are suffering from malnutrition. These are often the same communities that find themselves on the frontlines of climate change.
The extreme weather brought by El Niño has been linked to an increase in malnutrition, as well as diseases, such as dengue fever, diarrhoea and cholera, which are major killers of children. More children are staying out of school, because they need to travel long distances to fetch water, because they and their families had to move away following loss of crops, or because they are hungry or sick.
El Niño has caused changes in temperature, humidity and rainfall, and affected access to safe water and sanitation, providing conditions for the spread of water-borne diseases. In South America, for example, El Niño has created favourable conditions for the breeding of the Aedes mosquito that transmits the Zika virus, as well as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.
A study conducted in 18 African countries found that infection rates in HIV-endemic rural areas increased by 11% after every recent drought. Southern Africa, the global epicenter of the AIDS pandemic, has been severely affected by El Niño. Mortality among children living with HIV is two to six times higher for those who are severely malnourished than for those who are not.
La Niña – El Niño’s flip side – could strike at some stage later this year and could make things even worse. Typically La Niña affects the same areas as El Niño but in the opposite way. For some areas it could be good news – such as good rains after a long dry spell. But it could also spell disaster in some areas, with flooding in places already ravaged by drought. The humanitarian situation could deteriorate further as the full impact of the droughts and floods are being felt.
Millions of people have been left reeling from drought or flooding, and could have even bigger needs if La Niña strikes. They need immediate assistance. They need food, nutrition support for undernourished children, water, health and livelihood support. Millions of children are going hungry, and the numbers will grow if the world fails to act now. Affected communities also need longer-term help to build up resilience in the face of climate change, which is spurring increasingly frequent and powerful extreme weather events.
Together with partners, UNICEF has increased its response in nutrition, health, water and sanitation, education and protection to meet the immediate needs of children and their communities. We also work to help strengthen the resilience of children and their families and their ability to cope with future extreme events. UNICEF also advocates for more investments in education on environmental issues and awareness-raising.