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A Million Children in Sub-Saharan Africa Are Starving Amid El Niño Weather Extremes

Multiple humanitarian agencies are ringing alarm bells at the scale of food scarcity and disease outbreaks in eastern and southern Africa — and they say it could take years for the region to recover.
February 17, 2016, 7:30pm
Photo by Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Severe droughts and heavy rains have plagued parts of eastern and southern Africa over the last two years. And now extreme weather caused by El Niño is exacerbating the region's troubles, causing crop failures and disease outbreaks that have left nearly a million malnourished children in need of treatment, according to new figures from UNICEF.

Food shortages and rising commodity prices are forcing families to forego meals, particularly in countries like Ethiopia and Somalia, the UN agency said on Wednesday. Malnutrition rates in Malawi skyrocketed 100 percent between December and January, with 2.8 million people in need of food assistance. Even after El Niño loses strength later this year, UNICEF warns that it could take years for the region to recover.

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"The El Niño weather phenomenon will wane, but the cost to children — many who were already living hand-to-mouth — will be felt for years to come," said Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala, UNICEF's regional director for eastern and southern Africa. "Governments are responding with available resources, but this is an unprecedented situation. Children's survival is dependent on action taken today."

El Niño occurs every 3-5 years when sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become abnormally warm, causing drought conditions in some regions, while increasing rainfall in others.

Drought has hit Ethiopia the past two growing seasons, leaving six million kids in need of food assistance, while also forcing children to search for water, which is keeping them out of school. Ten million people require food assistance in the country — a number that is expected to reach 18 million by the end of the year.

Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and most provinces of South Africa have declared states of emergency due to drought, while in Kenya cholera outbreaks have been fueled by flooding.

The World Food Program estimated earlier this month that as many as 14 million people faced hunger in southern and eastern Africa amid the driest season the region has experienced in more than 30 years.

Even if the agricultural outlook improves this year, the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs said it will take two years for drought-stricken communities to recover from El Niño's impact.

According to UNICEF, 15 percent of the more than $150 million in humanitarian aid it has requested has been fulfilled.

Related: Millions Face Food Shortages as El Niño Fuels Africa's Worst Drought in Decades

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