7 Things You Need To Know About El Niño … and why you should care

By Johanna Mitscherlich, [email protected]

1. You don’t know what El Niño is? You are not the only one!

Don’t stop reading because you are put off by a term you don’t know. You are not the only one, we hear this question all the time. So, before we move on, here’s an easy answer for you: El Niño is a weather pattern of unusually warm water stretching across the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The relationship between winds and ocean currents changes and modifies weather conditions around the world. Key outcomes are reduced rainfall and drought.

You still think that’s too complicated? Then surely these women and men from Mozambique can help. El Niño to them means the worst drought in 35 years. No rains, failed harvests and no food. So let’s agree that the term might be technical, but ramifications for people’s lives are very concrete and real. So why don’t we concentrate on that.

2. It’s not just about bad weather – it’s about people’s lives

El Niño causes droughts in some parts of the world and floods in others. Worldwide more than 60 million are affected, the majority of them live in Southern Africa. 23 million people are severely food insecure and require immediate emergency assistance. So why does this drought make life so difficult? Well, the poorest communities are hit hardest. Half of the population in Southern Africa has less than 1 USD a day to survive. More than 80% of the population depend on agriculture for their survival. If their harvests fail, they have nothing to eat and no source of income. It is impossible for them to buy food, especially with market prices having more than doubled in some countries. When people run out of food and money, this changes their entire lives. Children drop out of school. People lack water to drink and clean themselves with. Diseases are more likely to spread.

3. It’s a man’s world?

Well, in Mozambique women and girls certainly are at the forefront of drought and climate change. A recent CARE study shows that the sheer desperation to provide for their families has forced women to resort to survival sex or other forms of exploitative behavior in return for money. CARE’s research also suggests an increase in child marriage, with families aiming to reduce the number of dependents in the family or cover expenses through the payment of a dowry. Ever since food has become painfully scarce in Mozambique, many girls are increasingly exposed to sexual and gender-based violence. “During our research we found that girls as young as 11 or 12 years have been lured away from water collection points by older men in exchange for food stocks or money. Some of the girls discovered later that they are pregnant and are consequently stigmatized by the community and family,” says a CARE worker. Girls drop out of school and spend hours every day to help fetch water and food. Women and girls are affected disproportionally by this crisis.

You want to know more about how the drought affects women and girls? Then read CARE’s recent study “Hope dries up? Women and Girls Coping with Drought and Climate Change in Mozambique”.

4. Climate change is making things worse…

El Niño is a natural event, but climate change modifies it in a way we have never experienced before. Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come: More extreme weather events are expected in the future due to a changing climate. Poorest communities are hit hardest, although they are least responsible for climate change.

Kit Vaughan from CARE’s Climate Change Network says: “It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between El Nino and climate change. But what we are seeing in Southern Africa right now is a ‘sneak preview’ on what’s to happen in the next years and decades as climate change worsens. If we don’t act right now to reduce emissions and build adaptation, this will be the ‘new normal’ for everyone, and then what people in Mozambique experience right now will be what our grandchildren experience in the future.” You think this is scary but don’t think that you can change anything! Kit has been in this job for many years and attended many UN Climate Change Conferences. “Without pressure and action from ordinary citizens there are very little changes. Without everyone’s support world leaders will not make sufficient, serious commitments and will not fulfill their promises.” You want to know what you can do? Read more on CARE’s Climate Change website.

5. There are solutions!

I know you’ve been waiting for it. Here’s some good news: Yes, El Nino and climate change threaten the lives of millions of people. And yes, climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural hazards, such as El Niño and La Niña events. But: There are solutions, we can help people adapt to the changing realities and better handle future shocks. A recent CARE study (another one, we do lots of research to make sure we know what we are doing!) conducted by an independent consultant shows that those communities who received support to adapt to the changing weather not only survived but sometimes even prospered during severe droughts. Yes, people need immediate assistance. They need food and water to survive and organizations like CARE are doing whatever they can. However, we need to think in much longer terms. Climate change is not going away and droughts and floods will reoccur. This is why CARE focuses on building climate resilience and build family’s capacities. People learn modern agricultural practices, use drought resistant seeds and seek alternative sources of income. One recipe for that are CARE’s Village Savings and Loans Groups (link). Those families are now managing to survive much better than those who were not part of these resilience programs.

6. Why “Not enough money” makes things really expensive …

“Sounds good,” you might be thinking. “But isn’t preparedness really expensive?” The opposite is the case! The last major El Niño almost 20 years ago caused 21,000 death and a destruction estimated around USD 36 billion. Studies show that every Dollar spent on disaster preparedness saves 7 Dollars in emergency response. Currently, only 43% of the UN’s regional appeal of 1.2 billion has been funded so far. A lot of money? Indeed, but the lives of millions of people depend on it. The longer the response is delayed, the more people will suffer, will be vulnerable to future shocks and stresses, the more development gains will be lost and the more costly the response will be. So we need to understand that humanitarian action alone is not enough to break the cycle of recurrent crisis. Preparedness is key. And it works. Early response and preparedness will prove far less costly in human and economic terms. See more info on how CARE’s supporting people in Southern Africa in this factsheet.

7. There is no time to waste. El Niño has a sister.

A sister? Yes, and she’s called La Niña. Whereas people’s hunger in the region is still growing, the current El Niño is officially over. La Niña often follows El Niño and brings extreme weather to the same regions which have already been badly affected by El Niño. It is usually associated with above average rainfall. It can reduce water deficits, but can also result in flooding in some areas. According to current forecasts, La Niña might unfold in countries already bearing the brunt of El Niño. And now? Well this takes us back to 6). We need to build (La Niña) preparedness and early action into the current response. It is critical to act now to protect livelihoods, preposition supplies and strengthen the capacity of communities at risk. Climate change is an unprecedented enemy. We need to understand the enemy we are up to fight against! And we need to be flexible, creative and able to adapt to the consequences that are already happening.


Read more about CARE's work in Mozambique here.