Millions of children’s lives at stake as El Niño strengthens, UNICEF ‘wake-up call’ report warns

A child and an elderly man stand on the roof of a building damaged when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in March 2015. Photo: UNICEF/Vlad Sokhin

10 November 2015 – As a result of a strengthening El Niño, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is warning that an estimated 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water in eastern and southern Africa alone, as the weather phenomenon has left droughts and floods in its wake throughout parts of Asia, the Pacific and Latin America.

“Children and their communities need our help to recover from the impact of El Niño and to prepare for the further damage it could unleash,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake a press release .

Besides the immediate risks of death and injury, El Niño can lead to significant increases in diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, diarrhoea and cholera – major killers of children. When extreme weather deprives communities of their livelihoods, young children often suffer from undernutrition that puts them at greater risk for illness, delayed mental development and premature death.

“The consequences could ripple through generations unless affected communities receive support amid crop failures and lack of access to drinking water that are leaving children malnourished and at risk of killer diseases,” said UNICEF in a new report, A Wake UP Call: El Niño’s Impact on Children.

World leaders will head to Paris for the 21st Meeting of States Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as COP21, from 30 November to 11 December. The goal is to reach a universal, binding agreement aimed at limiting global warming by cutting greenhouse emissions.

Mr. Lake underscored that the intensity and potential destructiveness of El Niño “should be a wake-up call” as world leaders gather in Paris. “As they debate an agreement on limiting global warming, they should recall that the future of today’s children and of planet they will inherit is at stake.”

While El Niños are not caused by climate change, scientists believe they are becoming more intense as a result of it. A number of the countries experiencing El Niño are those facing the gravest threat from climate change – many also have high poverty levels.

The weather phenomenon, among the strongest on record, is likely to cause more floods and droughts, fuel Pacific typhoons and cyclones and, if it continues strengthening as forecast over the coming months, affect more areas.

According to UNICEF, some of the countries most affected by El Niño include

  • Somalia, where more than 3 million people need support amid crop failures and food shortages;
  • Ethiopia, which experiencing its worst drought in 30 years, has left 8.2 million people food insecure and 350,000 children in need of nutrition support;
  • Peru, where the Government reports an estimated 1.1 million people – including 400,000 children – could be affected;
  • and Ecuador, where authorities believe 1.5 million people are at risk, about half of whom are children. In Indonesia, an exacerbated impact of peat and forest fires has caused 272,000 people to suffer from acute respiratory infections in August and September alone.

El Niño threatens to leave more than 4 million people in Pacific nations without food or drinking water, while causing one of the most severe droughts on record Central America, affecting some 3.5 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

El Niño is a climate pattern linked to the warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, which can have a profound effect on weather patterns around the world. El Niño events tend to happen every two to seven years.


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