El Niño’s impact on food security, agriculture and the most vulnerable

Underweight cows at Debi Balaka Kebele in Abargalle Woreda of the Amhara Region of Ethiopia. Action Against Hunger 2016.

The El Niño phenomenon is linked to the warming of the sea surface temperature in the tropical Pacific. This meteorological event occurs every two to seven years, and lasts from six to 24 months on average. Reduced rainfall and droughts are the most common outcomes of the El Niño, although it can also cause heavy rainfall and flooding. Its impact on agriculture and food security usually depends on a complex interplay of meteorological factors, and can range from minor to severe.


The 2015 – 2016 El Niño is by far the strongest on record since experts started tracking the phenomenon 60 years ago. It is fuelling a global food security crisis, with more than 60 million people in need of humanitarian assistance: at least 10.2 million in Ethiopia, 4.9 in Somalia, 3.6 in Haiti, three million in Zimbabwe and Malawi, and 1.5 million in Guatemala and Honduras. And although the El Niño event is currently subsiding, its impacts will be felt for many more months to come – along with an increased dependence on emergency aid and relief. In addition, droughts, flooding, rains and temperature rises due to the El Niño may contribute to increases in health problems, including disease outbreaks and malnutrition.


La Niña


Half of the time, a La Niña episode follows the El Nino phenomenon. This is a cooling of the sea surface temperature in the tropical Pacific. In other words, it affects the global climate patterns in the opposite way to El Niño. La Niña occurs roughly every three to five years, lasts from six to 24 months, and usually peaks between October and January. Current forecasts indicate that there is a 55 to 70% chance of a La Niña episode developing towards the end of 2016. It is important to know that consequences of La Niña can also be negative on agriculture and food security, with above average rainfall (resulting in floodings) that can lead to seeds being washed away.


Since La Niña would most likely impact the same regions already affected by the El Niño, there is a danger that challenges linked to food insecurity could worsen and last into 2018.


The El Niño event is a natural phenomenon that can be anticipated months in advance. Unfortunately, policymakers and global leaders have not done enough to minimize the extreme events that affect vulnerable populations. Action Against Hunger is helping provide food rations and potable water.


Blog by Rachel Levesque

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