Wrapping up a visit to southern Africa, the United Nations deputy humanitarian chief today called for urgent action to assist millions of people across the region where local coping capacities have been impacted by the worst El Niño-induced drought in 35 years.
“In Anjampaly, Southern Madagascar, people are carting water from muddy puddles on the dirt road, a water source shared with animals,” said Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Kyung-wha Kang. “This is an alarming health issue: clean water is essential to combat the high rates of malnutrition,” she stressed.
After attending and co-chairing a 14 July international conference in London on responses to the impacts of El Niño in southern Africa, she visited Malawi and Madagascar from 16 to 22 July to see the situation first-hand.
Ms. Kang met with representatives of the affected communities in both countries and discussed with Government authorities ways of boosting support to national efforts. She also met with donors as well as humanitarian partners.
El Niño is the term used to describe the warming of the central to eastern tropical Pacific that occurs, on average, every three to seven years. It raises sea surface temperatures and impacts weather systems around the globe so that some places receive more rain while others receive none at all, often in a reversal of their usual weather pattern.
El Niño, and its counterpart La Niña, which is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, occur cyclically, in recent years, mainly due to the effects of global climate change. Extreme weather events associated with these phenomena – such as droughts and floods – have increased in frequency and severity.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), El Niño-related conditions have compounded existing vulnerabilities, resulting in severe food shortages across southern Africa. Agricultural production has been crippled, and almost half a million drought-related livestock deaths have been reported while water sources and reservoirs are severely depleted.
Besides Malawi and Madagascar, the most severely affected countries include Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
Nearly 40 million people are food insecure in the region, including some 23 million who require urgent humanitarian assistance. About 2.7 million children face severe acute malnutrition, with the figure expected to spike significantly, if immediate assistance is not received. Food insecurity is expected to peak during the October 2016 to March 2017 lean season.
In the Grand Sud region of Madagascar, a region wholly bypassed by development investment and caught up in chronic extreme poverty, 1.14 million people are food insecure, among whom 665,000 are in need of urgent assistance. Stunting rates for under-fives are 47 per cent in the country overall: the highest in southern Africa.
In Malawi, a state of national disaster was declared in April, with 6.5 million people – nearly 40 per cent of Malawi's population – unable to get enough food by the end of this year.
The scale of the drought is stretching national coping capacities. Hard-won development gains and even minimum coping mechanisms hang in the balance.
In Malawi, Ms. Kang spoke to a mother of four who told her about the nutrition challenges she and her family are facing, and in Madagascar, she also talked to a grandmother who had lost her son and three grandchildren to starvation earlier this year and is now caring for the remaining family.
In both countries, she witnessed well-coordinated and much appreciated relief efforts by UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, but they need urgently more resources to step up their efforts.
“I appeal to governments and donors to give generously right now, so that we can provide life-saving assistance, alleviate suffering and prepare for the effects of La Niña,” Ms. Kang said.