By Anne Barker, courtesy of www.abc.net.au
The most powerful El Nino weather event in half a century is officially over but its impact will be felt most severely in Africa, which is now in the grip of its most devastating drought in 35 years.
Families across southern and eastern Africa had barely recovered from two years of erratic and failed rains, only to be hit by drought and dire food shortages.
The United Nations said the food crisis is ruining lives on a staggering scale and estimated at least 50 million people in 13 African countries were at risk.
Hot, dry weather conditions brought by the El Nino weather cycle since last year have ruined crops, dried up water supplies, killed livestock and led to severe malnutrition across southern and eastern Africa.
The UN predicted food insecurity would peak in Africa by December, but the humanitarian crisis would continue well into 2017.
An unprecedented drought
PHOTO: Almost 85 per cent of Ethiopians rely on agriculture to feed their families. (Flickr: UNICEF Ethiopia)
Food and water shortages have had a devastating impact on health, sanitation and education.
The UN Children’s agency UNICEF said children have been hardest hit, with 1.2 million under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition.
Another 25 million children in 10 countries are at risk of malnutrition, water shortages and disease.
“It’s as bad as we’ve seen in many, many decades,” said James Elder, UNICEF’s communications head for east and southern Africa.
“It really is an unprecedented drought which has led to a food crisis, pretty much unlike most people have seen in their lifetime.
“The impact of El Nino has largely dissipated. but what it has meant is that the last three crops have all been ruined.
“So when you have such a large portion of people — 70 per cent to 80 per cent of people in society who live in rural areas, who are entirely reliant on food stocks — then the impact of what El Nino was will be felt for the next 12 months.
“For example Ethiopia, because it has such a large population base, we’re looking at around 20 million Ethiopians, which is one-fifth of the population who are desperately short of food.”
Ethiopia relies on the annual rainy season for 80 per cent of its agricultural produce. But the 2015 rainy season never came.
Harvests were destroyed, water sources ran dry, and millions of people were suddenly dependent on aid for survival.
Governments supporting up to half the population
UNICEF said governments in the worst affected countries were having to support between a quarter to half the entire population.
Even countries which have been largely shielded from previous droughts are struggling to cope.
In Malawi almost half the population is in need of some support. Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and even South Africa are also struggling.
“When you come a long way south, South Africa has never had this problem before,” Mr Elder said.
“But suddenly South Africa has around a quarter of the population who are in some way food-insecure.”
Mr Elder said climate change — added to the El Nino effect — had produced a dire recipe for the African continent.
“Malawi had terrible floods two years ago so these climatic shocks are building and building, while people keep talking about the impact and ask ‘is this climate related, or not’?
“When it happens one or two years in a row fine, but when it’s four or five years it just becomes too much for people to absorb.”
Kids missing school to find water
Malnutrition is having a dangerous impact on children.
UNICEF said once children start going without meals they become stressed.
Without proper nutrients young children can be left stunted and face ongoing effects for the rest of their lives.
Health workers routinely measure the circumference of a child’s upper arms to assess their level of nutrition.
Some children are forced to abandon school to search for food or water.
In some cases children are walking dozens of kilometres to the nearest water hole, then back again carrying heavy containers.
Drought threatening progress
Some mothers are walking long distances to find health care or medicines for sick children. In the worst cases, UNICEF said severe food shortages were forcing some children into prostitution.
“We have examples of countries across the region where if you haven’t eaten for 3 to 4 days and people are preying on you then there are kids who have drifted into forms of prostitution simply to get a meal. That shouldn’t be the case in 2016,” Mr Elder said.
Some children are drinking from the same water trough as animals. The water is salty, hot and unclean.
Many children have diarrhoea and other illnesses. But no other water source is available for many kilometres.
The devastating drought is threatening progress many African nations have made in recent years.
Between 2000 and 2014 child mortality rates fell by two thirds in Ethiopia. “Stunting” rates dropped from 58 to 40 per cent.
But now, with six million children at risk of hunger, disease and a lack of water, those gains are at risk.
UNICEF said as children become malnourished, they are more susceptible to measles and its complications, including death.
Families have lost everything
PHOTO: Fatima Yesuf, 25, takes her 8-month-old daughter to a health centre for a checkup and food supplements(Flickr: UNICEF Ethiopia)
Mr Elder recounted the story of one young couple he met in Malawi who during the last floods lost their home and most of their possessions.
Within hours their mud house was destroyed, food stores were ruined and their children lost their school books and uniforms.
For nearly a year the couple worked seven days a week to rebuild their home.
The husband’s only income was from riding his bicycle 80 kilometres each day to earn $2 a day ferrying people around.
Slowly the pair saved enough to plant new crops and buy the children new uniforms and school books.
But then the drought hit last year and they have since lost their harvest for a second time.
“Whether you’re living in Gunnedah or Coober Pedy those shocks are too much for anyone. So you get these moments where the problems have hit people on multiple fronts, and they’ve run out of options. They’ve hit a point where external support is critical,” Mr Elder said.
“In many countries resources are simply reaching their limits. The capacity has been stretched by economic hardships on top of drought. So they’re at breaking point.”
Key words: climate-change, environment, world-politics, rights, human, drought, disasters-and-accidents, malawi, kenya, zimbabwe,south-africa, namibia, botswana