While Australian farmers nervously wait to see how a forecast El Niño might affect food production, Oxfam’s new report finds that at least ten million poor people around the world, including at least 2 million people in the Pacific, face hunger this year and next due to droughts and erratic rains, influenced by climate change and the likely development of a ‘super El Niño’.
In Entering Uncharted Waters: El Niño and the threat to food security, Oxfam says crops have already failed in Southern Africa and Central America, driving up the price of maize in local markets. Ethiopia and parts of South East Asia are suffering from the effects of drought and are braced for worse in coming months.
As the Australian Government prepares to join other nations in Paris in December to negotiate a global UN climate agreement, Oxfam is warning that the effects of El Niño and climate change could increase humanitarian emergencies at a time when resources and capacity are already under enormous strain.
El Niño occurs every few years, when the ocean surface temperature in the eastern tropical Pacific becomes much warmer than average, influencing global weather patterns. Occasionally, an extra strong El Niño happens. Recent research suggests climate change could almost double the frequency of these ‘super El Niños’ – to every 13 years instead of every 23 years.
Oxfam Australia’s Chief Executive Dr Helen Szoke said millions of poor people already were feeling the effects of this super El Niño, seeing their crops fail and the price of staple foods soar because of shortages.
“Such extreme weather events are only going to increase as climate change ramps up,” Dr Szoke said. “2014 was the hottest year on record and this year looks set to exceed it. Governments must wake up to the fact that climate change is already happening and there is an urgent need for a global deal to tackle it.”
Dr Szoke said that Papua New Guinea was already feeling the effects of an El Niño, with droughts and frosts destroying crops, and 2 million people affected.
Oxfam is working with partner organisations to assess conditions in drought-affected areas, identifying people who are most vulnerable. “We’re getting reports that current food supplies may only last another month in some districts,” Dr Szoke said. “Schools have reduced their hours to half days, as it gets too hot for the students and there’s not enough water.”
The report outlines how the effects of record high temperatures and the ‘super El Niño’ are already being felt:
· Papua New Guinea has been hit by torrential rains that caused landslides, then drought and severe heat that withered crops;
· Indonesian authorities have declared a drought in the majority of the country’s 34 provinces;
· The Government of Ethiopia estimates that 4.5 million people will need food relief by the end of the year because of poor rains;
· By February 2016, more than 2 million people in Malawi are expected to be struggling to find enough food;
· In Guatemala and Honduras, hundreds of thousands of farmers have suffered the partial or total loss of their crops through drought and changes to the seasons.
The last big El Niño in 1997-98 caused humanitarian disasters in many countries, including major forest fires in Indonesia and severe drought throughout many Pacific Island countries. In addition, the pattern of El Niños is getting harder to predict.
With ongoing climate change, 2014 was the hottest year on record. No El Niño developed then but growing seasons in Southern Africa and Central America behaved as if one were occurring. Temperatures continued to rise this year and some scientists are expecting it to be the most powerful El Niño to date.
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