The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

“Godzilla El Niño” may have ended, but its impact has just begun

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Maro Abdo and her son Kenenisa, 2, in Malkaguba. She is a member of the nearby irrigation project in Liben district, Ethiopia. Along the banks of the Dawa River, Oxfam and local partners launched a small-scale irrigation project for 201 households who had endured repeated cycles of drought and were anxious to find new ways of making a living. (Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America)

Although El Niño itself is almost over, the destruction it’s left behind in Southern and the Horn of Africa will wreak the most havoc in the upcoming months. Are policymakers ready?

Rebecca Rewald is the Administrative Assistant for the Policy Department at Oxfam America.

Remember, a few months back, when El Niño was all over the news and social media? Newscasters and journalists discussed it alarmingly, as if it brought inescapable, impending doom, and even nicknamed it after a fictional, prehistoric giant sea monster that terrorized Japan.  As the unusual weather patterns wind down, it seems the departure of “Godzilla El Niño”  is not nearly as newsworthy.  And although El Niño is winding down and life is going back to normal for some of us, in other parts of the world, the worst effects of El Niño are yet to come.

If you’ve already forgotten (or never really understood) what El Niño is, here’s a quick refresher: it’s a cyclical pattern of warming in the Pacific ocean leading to unusual weather patterns, causing  wetter-than-normal conditions in some areas, and dryer-than-normal conditions in other areas. El Niño episodes occur every two to seven years on average, but the one we’ve just experienced has been particularly unusual, hence all the media coverage. Scientists are now saying El Niño is winding down, but we shouldn’t celebrate just yet.

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, commonly knows as FEWS NET , the effects of the current droughts in parts of the Horn and Southern Africa will cause food insecurity that will reach peak levels in the coming months.  In Ethiopia, where 10 million people will require emergency subsistence, the situation will become increasingly severe until at least September.  In the map below, you can see regions of Ethiopia that are already suffering from food security will reach “Crisis” or “Emergency” levels by September.

Source: Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET)

Although crop harvests are in trouble now and food security is already an issue in Southern Africa, the situation will continue to deteriorate in the near term, and according to FEWS NET, won’t even reach its worst levels until between December 2016 and March 2017.   To give you an idea of how bad the situation in Southern Africa will become, here’s another FEWS NET map that shows rainfall anomalies from October 2015 – February 2016.

Source: Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET)

As is made obvious by all the red and orange dominating the chart, the current lack of rain in the region is alarming, and helps explain how El Niño’s effects over the last few months will have such long-lasting impacts on the ability of people to feed and support their families for many months to come.

The important work that organizations like FEWS NET do to predict the severity of future food insecurity crises should help policymakers prepare for these types of disasters, but that isn’t always the case. Like with the 2011 drought across the Horn of Africa, the international community can be slow respond, despite the fact that predictions of abnormal weather can being made earlier and earlier with the help of new and improved technology.  Unfortunately, we already see a lack of preparedness by policymakers, reflected in gaps in funding in all regions and sectors affected by El Niño. In Southern Africa, the funding gap is USD 472 million, while in the Horn of Africa, its USD 797 million.   These shortfalls in funding are truly unfortunate and frustrating, especially because we have the information needed to adequately prepare. And our lack of preparedness likely means devastating impact for the communities of these regions as the crisis worsens over the coming months.

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Check out Oxfam International’s “What Will Become of Us?” report to learn more about the current effects of El Niño in different parts of the world and to read first-hand accounts of some of the people that Oxfam is working with in Ethiopia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, El Salvador, and Papua New Guinea. 

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