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February 2016: El Niño sweeps across parts of Africa, destroying children’s futures

El Niño sweeps across parts of Africa, destroying children’s futures

Across eastern and southern Africa, millions of children are struggling to cope with food insecurity, lack of water, disease and threats to their education and safety. After two years of erratic rainfall and drought in some countries, one of the most powerful El Niño weather events for 50 years is wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods.

In 2014 and 2015, a series of climatic shocks ruined harvests, leaving many children and their families dependent on food aid to survive.

  • In southern Africa, a state of emergency has been declared in Zimbabwe and Lesotho, and agricultural yields are down by 30 per cent in South Africa, the region’s main maize producer. Drought response humanitarian appeals are less than 15 per cent funded across affected countries;
  • In Ethiopia, two seasons of failed rains mean that near on six million children currently require relief food assistance, with spikes of severe acute malnutrition exceeding those during the 2011 Horn of Africa food crisis;
  • In Somalia, humanitarian needs persist with 1.1 million people displaced within the country’s borders; more than two thirds of the displaced population are those in urgent need of food assistance;
  • In Kenya, El Niño-related heavy rains and floods are aggravating cholera outbreaks.

The El Niño weather phenomenon lasts some months, but the effects on children will last years – already we are seeing the impact on children’s futures in terms of malnutrition, declining school attendance and increased risk of abuse, emotional distress and movement within and across borders.

The effects of El Niño are felt on almost every continent. As ever, when disaster strikes, children are the most vulnerable. That maxim resonates nowhere more strongly than in eastern and southern Africa where millions of children are already living hand-to-mouth and vulnerable to recurrent droughts and ongoing conflicts, weakened safety nets from HIV/AIDs and deep-rooted poverty. This media brief seeks to provide journalists with a range of data and angles through which to report on El Niño and its impact on a region’s children.

El Niño is the warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific. Currently, it occurs every two to seven years and can last between six and 18 months. In March last year, the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officially declared an El Niño for 2015, with the climate phenomenon contributing to suppressed rainfall over northern East Africa and Southern Africa, significantly limiting agricultural yields and pastoral farming well into this first quarter of 2016.

According to NOAA and the UK Met Office, this El Niño may be the strongest since records began in 1950 – indeed one climatologist from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) has termed 2015/2016’s a “Godzilla El Niño”.

El Niño plus climate change is therefore a dire recipe for children. Often the countries most affected by the combined effects of climate change and El Niño are the least equipped to deal with these catastrophic impacts, due to their geography, economies and governance. Cruelest perhaps is that these hardest hit communities are also the least responsible for climate change.

A slow burn Child Nutrition Crisis

Food crises push people further into poverty, reversing sustainable development gains. As well as short-term suffering, hardship and loss, it takes many years to recover from the loss of livelihoods and there are long-term consequences for children’s development. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that it will take affected communities approximately two years to recover from El-Nino exacerbated drought, and that’s only if agricultural conditions improve in the latter half of this year.

The impact of El Niño has been felt most acutely in terms of a worsening drought in Angola, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Somalia (northern areas), Swaziland and Zimbabwe due to extensive crop failures. The outlook is disturbing with still little or no rain falling in affected areas and the next window for planting has already closed in some countries. Given that cereal stocks are already depleted – and food prices are high – there is grave concern for the ability of children and their families, who are already struggling to feed themselves, to continue to cope. In other words, the situation is expected to worsen throughout this year and into 2017.

Currently, the UN estimates that almost one million children are in need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year, with 45 per cent of these children living in Ethiopia. And in Malawi, cases of severe acute malnutrition have just jumped by 100% in just two months, from December 2015 to January 2016.

Eastern Africa: In Ethiopia, 10.2 million people, including near on 6 million children, will require food aid in 2016, with 435,000 children estimated to need treatment for severe acute malnutrition; in Somalia 4.9 million people are in need food aid with over 58,000 children severely acutely malnourished.

Southern Africa: In Angola, 1.4 million people are now estimated to be food insecure; in Zimbabwe a State of Emergency was recently declared with 2.8 million people food insecure; in Lesotho more than 500,000 are estimated to be affected; Malawi is responding to the needs of 2.8 million people

By the time this becomes a headline-grabbing, widespread news story, it will be too late for many of the region’s children. And attempts at relief, will be exponentially more costly, than early action.

It is vital that supplementary feeding programmes – led by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) – continue and are scaled up to ensure that moderately malnourished children (and their families) are receiving food when stocks are low or non-existent in homes. Without focus on supplementary feeding, we will start to see more children becoming severely acutely malnourished children, requiring more attention at health centres and hospitals as opposed to at the community level – and of course more funds.

Overview of nutrition situation in affected countries:

  • Malawi: Facing the worst food crisis in nine years, with 2.8 million people (15 per cent of the population) at risk of hunger as a result of flooding and drought. Average maize prices were at a record high in December 2015, and a staggering 25 out of the 28 regions in the country are affected. UNICEF is concerned about rising cases of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in children in the months to come. Malawi is also dealing with an emerging refugee crisis as Mozambican families flee over the border from Tete province to in southern Malawi, placing further strain on host communities already battling food insecurity.
  • Zimbabwe: The 2014/2015 cereal harvest was 42 per cent down on the five-year average. The Government recently declared a State of Emergency and an estimated 2.8 million people currently don’t have enough food.
  • Angola: A drought has spread across the country’s three southern provinces – Cunene, Huila and Cuando Cubango. In Cuene, 72 per cent of the population has been hit by crop and livestock losses. An estimated 800,000 people are now facing food insecurity
  • Lesotho: In Lesotho, more than half a million people (a quarter of the population) are affected. Delayed rains are having multiple and severe repercussions on the population, of which 57 per cent live below the poverty line, 23 per cent are living with HIV/AIDS and 34 per cent of children are orphans. Families have reduced the frequency of meals, children are not getting enough vitamin-rich foods and people are using unsafe water sources.
  • Ethiopia: The main rainy season (kiremt rains) that is vital for producing over 80 per cent of Ethiopia’s agricultural yield – in an industry that employs 85 per cent of the country’s workforce – failed in 2015; in some parts of the country, there have been a sobering four days rain recorded in the past two years – parts that historically experience a full three months of rain per year.

Numbers of severely acutely malnourished children peaked at 43,000 in August; higher than any month during the 2011 East Africa Food Crisis. Currently, 435,000 children are estimated to need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year. The El Niño exacerbated drought is so extreme that this year’s ‘hunger season’ will be double in length, placing even more pressure on families that are already struggling to cope with food insecurity and lack of clean water.

Somalia: The failure of last year’s rains in northern Somalia has led to a drought and severe water shortages and, in the most affected regions, to critical levels of malnutrition among children. The harvest in some areas is just 13 per cent of the five year average.

Enhanced rainfall related to El Niño has also been experienced in Kenya and Somalia, leading to some localized flooding and displacement of families. Floods can precipitate the outbreak of a number of diseases, including diarrhea, cholera and typhoid, due to exposure to contaminated water, as well as seriously disrupt or destroy vital infrastructure such as health clinics, schools and roads.

Kenya: Thirteen counties reported El Niño-related above average rains in October and November 2015; over 240,000 people have been affected with over 103,000 displaced due to heavy rains between October and December. 130 lives were lost.

Somalia: Towards the end of last year flooding in the south central regions affected 145,000 people and displaced nearly 60,000.

Children will be affected long after the weather wanes

Beyond coping with drought and lack of food, disease outbreaks threaten to serve a double blow to children.

Children with high rates of malnutrition are more susceptible to diseases such as measles and malaria – and water- and sanitation-related diseases like cholera and diarrhea threaten to worsen the nutritional status of children, which is already depleted due to lack of food. On top of this, health systems in developing countries are often not robust enough to cope with major outbreaks.

Heavy rains in Eastern Africa are contributing to the spread of cholera; in Kenya more than 11,700 cases of cholera have been reported with 190 deaths. The outbreak at the Dadaab refugee camp is attributed to heavy El Nino rains exacerbating poor hygiene and inadequate sanitation facilities.

638 cases with 10 deaths from cholera have been registered in Malawi, linked to the very low water levels in the country’s lakes, with poor water and sanitation conditions.

In Lesotho the Ministry of Health is reporting a large increase in incidences of diarrhea in December due to lack of safe water sources

In Zimbabwe the drought situation has resulted in reduced water yields from the few functioning boreholes exacerbating the risk to water-borne diseases, especially diarrhea and cholera;

Two regions in South Somalia are still reporting Acute Watery Diarrhoea outbreaks, and UNICEF is responding to cholera outbreaks in Jowhar, Kismayo and Mogadishu Baidoa.

Cholera cases are also reported at the borders of Kenya and Somalia and Kenya and Ethiopia. Given the various migration flows in the region, the potential for transmission across borders is high.

UNICEF and partners are working around the clock to prevent and reduce the health effects of El Niño, including stepping up vaccination drives, mobilizing communities to promote health and hygiene practices; improving water and sanitation services; providing emergency medical care and maintaining access to health services. Cross–border responses are also implemented to prevent further transmission of disease.

Children’s futures are being negatively affected too, with drought driving school absenteeism and migration, increasing incidences of abuse and impacting birthing practices and the HIV/AIDS pandemic in southern African countries.

1.3 million children affected by drought in Ethiopia are in need of support to continue their education. The current drought emergency is exacerbating pre-existing high numbers of out of school children in some regions.

At the end of last year, UNICEF conducted an analysis on the impact of the drought on education in the 6 most affected regions (Afar, Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR, Tigray and Somali). Children may frequently not attend or drop out of school for a numbers of reasons including having to walk long distances to fetch water or work to support their families, or inability to focus in class due to lack of food.

  • In Somali Region, 67 primary schools have been formally closed as a result of the drought, directly affecting 14,000 school children. There are also 25 school communities hosting children from internally displaced communities, stretching the limited resources available within the schools.
  • 72 per cent (6,987 primary schools) of the primary schools in the six regions have no water available on school premises, reaching a staggering 83 per cent of primary schools in Oromia Region.

Child protection assessments have been undertaken in five out of six of the drought affected region, in partnership with the Regional Bureau of Women, Children and Youth Affairs (Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali regions) and the Bureau of Labour and Social Affairs (Tigray Region) to identify child protection drought related concerns.

Assessments indicate that the drought is undermining children’s protection and safety. Children are increasingly engaging in harsh work and as a result often separated from their families. Girls are walking further distances to fetch firewood and water with all the related risks. An increased number of children show signs of psychological distress.

Child protection needs have been included in the Government of Ethiopia’s 2016

Humanitarian Response Document for the first time – but interventions are currently only seven per cent funded.

In Lesotho certain vulnerable groups are being impacted more than others with the Ministry of Health reporting that in some areas pregnant women are no longer presenting to give birth in health clinics due to lack of water in these facilities. In addition, reports say that a number of HIV/AIDS patients are ceasing to take their ARVs and other medication because of lack of food to take the drugs with.

As a result of the current drought in northern Somalia, learning centres in Puntland and Somaliland have been affected with teachers and children migrating due to water scarcity. In Puntland, around 30 per cent of learning centres in drought affected regions are not fully operational.

Fatigue? No one is more worn out than the children affected

The slow-burn El Niño emergency across eastern and southern Africa is putting greater stress on government resources and an international humanitarian system that is already overstretched. Aid agencies are tackling the enormous refugee crisis triggered by the Syrian conflict along with major emergencies in South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and the Central African Republic.

The Horn of Africa is also home to 1.3 million refugees (733,000 in Ethiopia, 596,000 in Kenya) with an additional 1.1 million displaced people within Somalia’s borders. Drought, food insecurity and floods put further strain on food and health supplies and on host communities – and indeed host governments who need support to help feed and protect refugees, as well as growing numbers of malnourished children.

UNICEF maintains that governments and donors cannot stand by and risk a repeat of the 2011 Horn of Africa food crisis, when more than 130,000 Somali children died. UNICEF continues to encourage longer term and predictable funding to be able to strengthen preparedness and resilience building – in addition to responding to urgent humanitarian needs.

Governments across affected countries are leading the humanitarian response but the needs are vast. Currently UNICEF is working with governments and other partner agencies including WFP, OCHA and FAO seeking to ensure that:

  • Children receive the emergency therapeutic food and milk they need to survive
  • Basic health supplies, including vaccines, reach even the most remote children
  • Children have safe water to drink
  • The most vulnerable households receive food or cash transfers to get prevent children from engaging in risky activities such as child labour or dropping out of school to help the family to get water from faraway sources
  • Children can continue with their schooling in drought or flood affected areas But with worsening food crises happening in tandem, UNICEF humanitarian appeals are less than 15 per cent funded across all El Niño impacted countries in southern Africa.





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