Aid agencies call for funds to save lives in El Nino-hit countries

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An inadequate response to El Nino would put tens of millions of people at risk of hunger, water shortages and disease, a group of leading aid agencies said, calling on donors for funding to save lives in countries hit by the weather phenomenon.

Paraguayans remove their belongings on a boat from their flooded houses near the Paraguay river in Asuncion, December 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno

The United Nations launched a record humanitarian appeal in December, asking for $20.1 billion to help 87 million people in 37 national and regional crises in 2016.

But some countries affected by El Nino, including Malawi, Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea and El Salvador, were not included in the appeal, the humanitarian agencies said.

The aid groups, including Oxfam and World Vision, said “urgently required” funding should go into disaster preparedness, resilience building and crisis response, which would save money in the future.

“According to the United Nations, every $1 that is invested in disaster preparedness and resilience now could save up to $7 in emergency relief if a disaster unfolds over the coming months,” World Vision’s El Nino response director, Kathryn Taetzsch, said in a statement.

El Nino - a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific - affects wind patterns and can trigger both floods and drought in different parts of the world, leading to reduced harvests.

Ethiopia is one of the hardest hit countries and is experiencing its worst drought in decades. Some 8.2 million Ethiopians - out of a population of nearly 100 million – need food aid.

In Malawi, some 2.8 million people are struggling to feed themselves.

In Asia, poor harvests caused by lower than average rainfall linked to El Nino have hit Papua New Guinea particularly badly.

Central America, particularly El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, along with Haiti and southeastern Brazil, have recorded below average rainfall this year, while heavy rains caused flooding in parts of Argentina and Peru.

According to the World Food Programme, an estimated 2.3 million people in Central America, mostly subsistence farmers, day laborers and their families, will need food assistance because of widespread damage to crops and rising food prices due to a prolonged drought exacerbated by El Nino.

The agencies said it was important to apply lessons learned from the 2011 Horn of Africa drought in which 258,000 died in Somalia alone. They cited a 2012 report which said that the response to the drought in Somalia was “too little, too late”.

“If the world acts now, we can help prevent disaster and suffering for millions of people – rather than waiting for people to start dying,” said Nigel Timmins, Oxfam International’s humanitarian director.