A single El Niño can lead nearly 6 million children to starvation, according to a new study.
It is up to three times as many children who have gone hungry due to pandemic, and a clear demonstration of how El Niños can have a direct impact on human well-being on a large scale.
“It is a real tragedy that even in the 21st century, such a large part of the human population is driven to despair by predictable climatic processes”, says a public health researcher Gordon McCord of the University of California at San Diego.
El Niño is a natural warming cycle over the Pacific Ocean that causes large-scale weather changes around the world every four to seven years. Usually, equatorial winds blow from east to west over the Pacific Ocean, but as sea surface temperatures increase, these winds weaken and may even reverse, changing precipitation and temperatures.
The dire consequences of these massive changes in air currents are rippling through ecosystems around the world, including within our own societies. They trigger harsh droughts, fuel hurricanes, to lead to sweltering marine life and spur disease outbreaks, with economic and health effects that can increase civil strife.
University of San Francisco environmental economist Jesse Anttila-Hughes and colleagues examined the impacts of El Niño-Southern Oscillation events on children in the tropics. They analyzed four decades of children’s health records from 51 developing countries, as well as the average sea surface temperature between May and December of a given year – one indication of which was the El Niño years.
The El Niño climatic phenomenon has particular impacts on tropical regions because the temperatures there are closer to what crops can withstand. The population of vulnerable children here is also larger, with 20 percent already classified as severely insufficient by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Data on more than one million children, covering nearly 50 percent of the world’s children under the age of 5, revealed a clear trend.
Collectively, the weight of children has clearly decreased over the years with El Niños. Years later, this also translated into stunted growth, indicating that El Niño conditions coincided with more severe child undernutrition in most of the areas studied.
From Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the effects have not varied from region to region. But there were differences in some key places.
In a few countries, those that experienced increased rainfall during El Niños, children received better nutrition, as indicated by their height and weight statistics. Not surprisingly, it appears that rainfall is a key factor between El Niño and nutritional outcomes in children.
“Scientists can predict the approach of El Niño up to six months in advance, allowing the international community to intervene to prevent the worst impacts,” he added. Explain Amir Jina, University of Chicago environmental economist.
“Our study helps quantify these impacts on child nutrition to guide global public investments in food insecure areas.”
According to the team’s calculations, El Niño of 2015 added nearly 6 million children to the millions already struggling with malnutrition in these regions.
“As scientists can indicate which places will experience drought and which places will be flooded months in advance, the international community could act proactively to prevent millions of children from becoming undernourished.” said McCord.
Anttila-Hughes is concerned that we are not yet taking action to anticipate these recurring and predictable El Niño events, given that climate change is expected to make local and global climate events much less predictable in the future.
“[Our work] could contribute to the development of early warning systems against hunger that would allow actors to deploy nutritional and humanitarian support operations in a proactive rather than reactive manner ”, the team writes in its paper, recommending that governments and humanitarian agencies integrate El Niño forecasts into their planning and budgets.
This research was published in Nature Communication.