Climate

How El Niño Could Threaten Millions With Starvation

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As this year’s El Niño forecast becomes increasingly clear, drought-parched Californians are hopeful that the pattern will bring much needed rains to the abnormally dry region.

But around the world, the looming El Niño pattern could drive extreme weather patterns and continued droughts, putting millions at risk of starvation due to low agricultural production and lack of water, according to a report released earlier this month by Oxfam.

El Niño is a weather pattern that occurs when ocean temperatures across the equatorial Pacific are abnormally warm, driving extreme weather elsewhere. Some weather forecasters believe that this year’s El Niño could be as severe as the 1997-98 El Niño, which is estimated to have caused the death of some 23,000 people.

Already, droughts along Africa’s eastern coast have left millions without food. In Ethiopia, poor rains have forced some 4.5 million residents to seek food aid, while in Malawi, floods followed by drought have cut the maize harvest by more than a quarter, threatening between two and three million with hunger. Drought has also reduced Zimbabwe’s maize harvest by more than a third, threatening some 1.5 million with hunger.

“Over the next few months the El Niño will attain maximum strength,” the Oxfam report read. “This will coincide with the coming rains in Southern Africa, due from November onwards. Meteorologists predict a high probability of below-average rains again as a result. A second successive poor rainy season across Southern Africa will bring serious food security problems next year.”

Throughout Central America, two years of drought have also led to below-average harvests. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, dry weather caused by El Niño is responsible for declines of 60 percent in maize and 80 percent in beans across Central America. With the forecast calling for an even stronger El Niño this year, Central America will likely face increasingly dry conditions.

El Niño has also contributed to abnormally dry conditions in the southwestern Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea, where more than two dozen people have died due to hunger and contaminated water. Oxfam Australia’s climate change policy advisor Simon Bradshaw told the Guardian that many parts of Papua New Guinea have about two to three months of food left, but other areas — mainly those in the country’s highland areas — could run out of food in less than a month.

“In the highland areas people are almost exclusively reliant on subsistence farming, farming of sweet potatoes,” Bradshaw said. “We do know that water is becoming very scarce, that’s of course impacting food production, and PNG is almost entirely dependent on its own food — I think 83 percent of its food is produced in-country – so any hit on food production poses immediate challenges in terms of food security.”

As the 2015 El Niño strengthens, countries near the equator can expect more frequent and stronger rains, threatening low-lying island nations with flooding. In the southwest Pacific, however, dry conditions are expected to continue and intensify, prompting humanitarian agencies to fear a large-scale crisis.

“El Niño has the potential to trigger a regional humanitarian emergency and we estimate as many as 4.1 million people are at risk from water shortages, food insecurity and disease across the Pacific,” Sune Gudnitz, head of the Pacific region office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the Guardian. “Drought conditions would further complicate the humanitarian situation in countries that are just emerging from the devastation caused by tropical cyclones Pam, Maysak and Raquel.”

Forecasters say that warming ocean temperatures — linked to climate change — could make strong El Niño events like the one expected this year twice as likely in the future.

“Warming seas could double the frequency of the most powerful El Niños, and as global warming creates more and more sea-surface temperature ‘hot spots’ in the world’s oceans, and wind systems change as a result, extreme weather and greater climate disruption may be what a ‘normal’ future looks like if greenhouse gas emissions are not urgently and drastically reduced,” the Oxfam report concluded. “The combination of record warmth one year followed by an El Niño the next is unique and the climatic implications are uncertain. If 2016 follows a similar pattern we are entering uncharted waters.”