El Niño has exacerbated a huge drought in southern Africa. This rainy season has been the driest in 35 years. Farmers have had to delay planting or – with meagre rains coming up to two months late in some areas – haven’t been able to plant at all. The available window to successfully plant rain-fed crops has now nearly closed. For many communities across the entire region, the unanimous predictions of continuing hotter, drier weather will seal the failure of another maize crop. The region’s biggest maize producer, South Africa, is predicting a 36% decrease from its five-year average harvest. The region was already fragile, its cereal production having dropped 23% in 2014-15 because of drought. People were already highly-vulnerable to another bad year. Food scarcity has also meant high prices: maize in both South Africa and Malawi was at record highs at the start of 2016. More than 14 million people in the region are food insecure now and this is likely to increase; around 14 million more people in South Africa are affected, though the government there is managing the situation and has not yet asked for help.
Central America is facing one of the most severe droughts in its history, after three consecutive years of drought, supercharged last year by El Niño. There is deepening food insecurity in areas all around Central America, the Caribbean and the South America highlands. There are continuing crop failures. Communities in the “dry corridor” of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are facing the worst of it; around 3.5 million people are having serious difficulties in accessing food. The poorest households are most affected. People are facing severe malnutrition at least until the next harvest in August.
In Asia, it is likely that El Niño will cause more drought, unusual rainfall patterns and conditions for worse forest fires. Monsoons have been poor. El Niño is compounding the problems that many communities already face from climate change. In Indonesia drought is affecting millions of people and exacerbated huge forest fires last year. More than 2 million hectares of forest burnt, spreading a haze that affected some 43 million people, half a million of whom suffered respiratory infections. Similarly in the Philippines, El Niño has already affected 65,000 farmers and 32,000 hectares of rice paddy. Disasters are still not inevitable at this point, but as shown by the Government of Philippines’ recent declaration of a “State of Calamity” in 3 provinces, the window of opportunity for timely action to avoid major humanitarian emergencies is closing.
Urgent support is needed now for people in Papua New Guinea and careful monitoring is required elsewhere. Up to 4.3 million people face hunger, poverty and disease due to El Niño-related droughts, erratic rains and frosts. The last major El Niño in 1997-1998 caused severe drought, major crop losses and hardship in many parts of the Pacific. This year’s El Niño is expected to be even worse, compounded by record high temperatures and poor growing seasons in 2014.