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El Niño: What It Is And Why Does It Matter?

A quick guide to help you understand what El Niño is, why it can't be neglected and what the World Food Programme (WFP) is doing to respond.

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El Niño: The science

El Niño is nothing new for the fishermen of Peru and Ecuador. In fact, they have known about it for centuries, which is little surprise given that the fish in the area vanish every three to seven years, bringing their livelihoods to a halt.

So why does this happen? Put simply, El Niño is a weather pattern that results from a warming of sea temperatures in the equatorial pacific every three to seven years. These warmer temperatures cause hot air to rise – resulting in a disruption to global weather patterns. 

One of the first knock-on effects of this is that fish either die or migrate to areas where they’ll find more to eat. 

But the effects of El Niño don’t stop here.


Photo:WFP/Guled Mohamed

El Niño: Why it matters

El Niño causes changes in rainfall and temperature across the world, affecting crops and pasture development in many areas where WFP works. These altered weather patterns can cause severe droughts in parts of Asia, whilst simultaneously causing heavy flooding in East Africa. 

Not only can such extreme weather make a humanitarian emergency more likely, it can also jeopardize people’s ability to produce and buy food. The impact will be felt most by communities that are already reliant on humanitarian aid and who are already struggling to cope by skipping meals, selling assets and pulling their children out of school to work.

El Niño isn’t all bad though. More rain caused by El Niño in the Horn of Africa may bring welcome relief to some pastoralists during what would usually be their ‘short rains’ season. However this is tempered by an increased risk of floods in Kenya and Somalia, and the likelihood of poor rains in other parts of east Africa. 

The effects of El Niño are different each time but this one is being cited as one of the strongest on record. Scientists say that the event now underway is sending sea temperatures in parts of the Pacific to levels not seen since the late 1990s.


Photo:WFP USA

El Niño: Who is most at risk?

Many communities around the world are already feeling the impact of El Niño. In Central America, people living in the Dry Corridor from Guatemala to Nicaragua, are suffering a second consecutive year of drought, which has meant extensive crop losses for many. 

At least 1.5 million people will struggle to access food in Zimbabwe following a poor harvest in April, which was caused by prolonged dry spells.

In Somalia, severe food and water shortages are a result of El Niño-triggered drought in the North West and flooding in the southern and central areas. Livestock deaths have so far plunged over 10,000 families into destitution.

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WFP: Preparedness is key

WFP is closely monitoring the current El Niño and preparing for the possible repercussions for poorer communities around the world and their ability to access food. 
With natural disasters on the increase, WFP knows that preparedness is key. A new global WFP tool will ensure money is readily available locally if a climate-related risk is likely to occur – meaning a quicker response to affected communities. 

Additionally, WFP has also been able to produce informative and easy-to-understand weather alerts with Met offices and local government partners. This information includes anything from where to take your cattle in the event of a flood, to best food storage options during wet weather or suggested crops to plant in certain climates.


Photo:WFP/Argon Dragaj

WFP innovations help build the resilience of vulnerable households to climate risks. Our R4 Rural Resilience Initiative in Malawi, Zambia, Ethiopia and Senegal protects safety nets beneficiaries against drought by combining insurance, savings, livelihood diversification and disaster risk reduction. Protected by insurance, households no longer need to take drastic measures if and when crops fail, building their resilience over time.

For those areas already affected, WFP is working with communities to help them back on their feet. In drought affected areas like Zimbabwe, cash assistance for the most vulnerable has the double advantage of giving choice to families as well as injecting cash into the local economy. 

Our friends at WFPUSA recently sat down with Richard Choularton, head of WFP’s Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction Programmes Unit. Take a look at what he had to say.
 

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Cash Helps Drought-Stricken Farmers In Zimbabwe

Southern Africa is suffering a food crisis, with over 27 million* people facing hunger over the next six months. 

In Zimbabwe 1.5 million people are not able to access the food they need to be healthy. WFP's David Orr met hundreds of farmers in Sasula, central Zimbabwe, who have lost all of their crops to drought, leaving them without food and destroying their livelihoods. As they waited to receive cash distributions from the World Food Programme, they shared their stories and explained why this year has been such a difficult one.

*Source: Southern Africa Development Community (SADC)

“We didn’t have a good harvest because the rains came late, and by then the crops were wilting,” explains Dumazile Moyo, who is married with four children. “I harvested only three bags of maize and two bags of millet, not enough to feed my family.”

“I harvested only three bags of maize and two bags of millet, not enough to feed my family.”

Dumazile Moyo, close up
Dumazile Moyo. Photo:WFP/David Orr

She is one of an estimated 1.5 million people currently facing hunger in Zimbabwe. WFP launched an operation in October to give food or – where market conditions allow – cash assistance to the most vulnerable of these.

Cash has several advantages: it allows recipients to choose their own food; it injects money into the local economy; and, crucially for both donors and humanitarian organizations, it costs less to transport than food commodities. 

A WFP recipient receiving cash to buy food.
Photo:WFP/David Orr

The distribution in Sasula takes place in the local church – other distributions in the area are held in a municipal office and outdoors in the shade of a tree. Registered recipients have their identities checked by representatives of WFP’s partner organization, ADRA, before lining up to receive their allocation: US$9 per family member. The money is handed out by guards from a local security firm under the watchful eye of a community leader.  

“Life is tough now,” says Frank Zivengwa, married with six children, who is also waiting for assistance. “I can only survive by doing labouring jobs in other people’s fields. Sometimes I make bricks to sell.”

A group of women carrying shopping bags
Photo:WFP/David Orr

Those who qualify for cash assistance must do eight hours of training per month in climate-smart agriculture and another eight hours putting those lessons into practice in their fields, working on water harvesting or irrigation systems. For the rest, it will be up to nature to ensure there is enough rain to nourish the crops. 

“We’re hoping for a better harvest next season so we won’t be stressed again about not being able to feed our families,” says Priscilla Mudyanavana after cooking a meal with the food she has bought at a local shop.

The forecasts, however, are worrisome. It is predicted that the current global El Niño weather event is likely to herald yet another season of reduced rains across southern Africa.  

Learn more about the Cash and Vouchers intitiative

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UN agencies expand operations in southern Africa as poor harvests deepen food insecurity

19 October 2015 – An estimated 27.4 million people in southern Africa face food insecurity in the next six months, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) warned today, announcing the expansion of their operations to respond to the challenge, caused by poor harvests across the region.

In a press statement issued today from Johannesburg, South Africa, the UN agencies cited poor harvests experienced by farmers across the region, which will negatively impact the capacity of vulnerable farmers to purchase seeds, fertilizer and other necessities for the current planting season.

According to the latest update from the Southern Africa Food and Nutrition Working Group, the region faces the risk of another poor monsoon and harvest resulting in ‘significant increase in food and nutrition insecurity in the region.’

Lesotho and southern parts of Angola and Mozambique face food insecurity. Areas facing immediate threats are Malawi, Zimbabwe and Madagascar, where severe crop failure due to extended dry spells, extensive flooding and impactful tropical storms have resulted in increasing food insecurity.

Malawi is experiencing the worst food insecurity in a decade with nearly 2.8 million people reported to be food insecure.

WFP is planning to assist 2.4 million food-insecure people during the height of the lean season, the period prior to the next harvest when domestic food stocks become depleted.

The agency says it also plans to implement social protection plans such as food assistance with cash transfers and have already assisted nearly one million people who have been affected by floods.

FAO has supported the Government of Malawi in preparing the agricultural section of the national food insecurity response plan.

This would include provision of inputs, with an emphasis on drought-tolerant crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, sorghum and millet and on supplementary irrigation in order to cope with potential prolonged dry spells.

The agencies report that in Zimbabwe, an estimated 1.5 million people are expected to be food insecure in the coming months after harvests were down by 50 per cent than last year.

FAO is working with the Government to rehabilitate 34 irrigation schemes and increasing rural finance access to 127,000 smallholder farmers to adopt climate smart technologies.

The agency is also providing support to 40,000 smallholder households to engage in commercial livestock production and assisting in distributing vaccines for the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the country.

FAO has also prepared a drought mitigation programme, for which there is a financial gap of US $32 million to support livestock and crop farmers with stock feed and seeds respectively, in the most affected parts of the country.

WFP plans to assist the Government and partners by providing cash and food transfers to over 400,000 vulnerable people which could scale up to 850,000 people during lean season.

Both agencies focus on building resilience in southern Africa by promoting and supporting climate smart technologies, social protection schemes, refurbishing and construction of water management systems, tree planting and terracing to prevent soil erosion.

The agencies report that food prices may soar early in the season which could cause further hardship for poorer households.

Both FAO and WFP have reaffirmed to collectively help the governments in the impacted countries improve food price monitoring.

Lastly, the UN agencies report that along with food security, the region faces the highest level of chronic malnutrition in children and HIV prevalence in adults.

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UN Agencies Respond To Growing Food Insecurity In Southern Africa

JOHANNESBURG – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) are expanding their operations in response to growing food insecurity as a result of poor harvests across much of southern Africa. There will be an estimated 27.4 million food-insecure people in the region during the next six months, according to the Southern African Development Community 2015 Vulnerability Assessments.*

WFP, FAO and other partners are meanwhile monitoring the El Niño weather phenomenon which could significantly impact southern Africa following a poor agricultural season in 2014/15. The intensity of the El Niño is increasing towards a peak expected in late 2015, and may become one of the strongest such events on record. The region faces the risk of another poor rainfall season and harvest resulting in a “significant increase in food and nutrition insecurity in the region,” according to the latest update from the Southern Africa Food and Nutrition Working Group.

Food insecurity means that people struggle to buy or produce enough nutritious food to lead a healthy life.

Poor Harvests
Most at threat from immediate food insecurity are Malawi, Zimbabwe and Madagascar which all suffered severe crop failure due to extended dry spells (combined, in Malawi, with extensive flooding and, in Madagascar, with the effects of strong tropical storms). There are also concerns about growing food insecurity in Lesotho and the southern parts of Angola and Mozambique. While Botswana and Namibia also suffered from extensive drought earlier this year, people in these countries are not considered as much at risk.

The poor harvest experienced by farmers across the region will negatively impact the capacity of vulnerable farmers to purchase seeds, fertilizer and other necessities for the current planting season.

Malawi: Worst Food Insecurity in a Decade
Malawi is experiencing the worst food insecurity in a decade, and 2.8 million people are reported to be food insecure. FAO and WFP are implementing various measures to alleviate the situation. WFP is planning to assist 2.4 million food-insecure people during the height of the lean season, the period prior to the next harvest when domestic food stocks become depleted. Lean season activities will combine food assistance with cash transfers in areas where market conditions allow. So far this year, WFP has already provided food assistance to one million people who have been affected by floods.

FAO has supported the Government of Malawi in preparing the agricultural section of the national food insecurity response plan. The agricultural needs have been estimated at US$44 million. The response will include provision of inputs, with an emphasis on drought-tolerant crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, sorghum and millet and on supplementary irrigation in order to cope with potential prolonged dry spells.

Zimbabwe: Harvest Down by Half
It is estimated that at least 1.5 million people will be food insecure in Zimbabwe in coming months following a harvest that was down 50 percent on last year. FAO is working with the government to support resilience building approaches among vulnerable groups. Some 34 irrigation schemes in drought prone districts are being rehabilitated. As many as 127,000 smallholder farmers are receiving support to adopt climate smart technologies and increase their access to rural finance.

In the livestock sector, FAO is providing support to 40,000 smallholder households to engage in commercial livestock production. The organization is also responding to the foot and mouth disease outbreak in some parts of the country where 5.4 million doses of vaccines are still required.  FAO has also prepared a drought mitigation programme, for which there is a financial gap of US$32 million, to support livestock and crop farmers with stock feed and seeds respectively, in the most affected parts of the country.

WFP is working with the government and partners to assist some 400,000 of the most vulnerable people, scaling up to reach 850,000 people at the height of the lean season. Assistance will be given in the form of both food and cash transfers.
 
Building Resilience
FAO continues to support the adoption of climate smart technologies for both livestock and crop production systems as a way to promote sustainable production and increased resilience among communities. WFP has started cash- and food-for-work projects whereby rural communities work on the refurbishment or construction of schemes such as water management systems, tree planting and terracing to prevent soil erosion.

Food Price Rises
FAO and WFP, together with other stakeholders, will consolidate efforts to help governments improve food price monitoring in their countries. Early indications point at market prices beginning to soar earlier than is normally the case. Such a development so early in the season is likely to cause further hardship for the poorest households.

Compounding the food insecurity situation are the region’s high levels of chronic malnutrition in children and of HIV prevalence in adults – both are among the highest in the world.

The UN agencies have expressed gratitude for the generous contributions made so far in support of the vulnerable people of the region. However, they are facing significant shortfalls and, unless more funding is forthcoming, it will not be possible to provide needed assistance to all those in need.

* This figures excludes Angola, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles    

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Achieving food security for all is at the heart of FAO's efforts – to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. FAO’s three main goals are: the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition; the elimination of poverty and the driving forward of economic and social progress for all; and, the sustainable management and utilization of natural resources, including land, water, air, climate and genetic resources for the benefit of present and future generations.

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience. Each year, WFP assists some 80 million people in around 80 countries.

For more information please contact:
Edward Ogolla, FAO/Harare, tel. + 263 771681178, email: edward.ogolla@fao.org
David Orr, WFP/Johannesburg, tel. + 27 82 908 1417, email: david.orr@wfp.org

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UN urgently appeals for $86 million to tackle food insecurity in Zimbabwe

12 October 2015 – The United Nations in Zimbabwe has appealed to humanitarian and development partners for $86 million that is critically needed to fill a shortfall to support 1.5 million people affected by food insecurity in the country.

“The food security response plan, developed through a consultative process, requests $132 million, with $46 million so far pledged leaving a shortfall of $86 million to support 1.5 million people affected by food insecurity in 52 districts,” said Bishow Parajuli, UN Resident Coordinator in Zimbabwe, in a statement during a high level consultative meeting this past Friday of senior government representatives, UN agencies and development partners in the capital, Harare.

The request followed a recent call by Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Food and Nutrition Security, to partners for support.

Expressing gratitude to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department for International Development (DFID) in the United Kingdom for their joint $43 million pledge, the Resident Coordinator called on other humanitarian and development partners to “join hands in responding to the funding gap.”

The response plan, which covers various sectors, has a gap of $41 million in food assistance; $32 million in agriculture and livelihoods; $5 million in nutrition; $5 million in protection and social safety nets; and $3 million in water, sanitation and hygiene to assist the most vulnerable populations in the country.

Supported by the Government, UN, non-governmental organizations and donors, the 2015 Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee reported that food insecurity was the result of agricultural production loss – due mainly to prolonged dry spells in the southern and south-eastern parts and poor rainfall distribution patterns both in space and time across the country.

With logistical support from the World Food Programme (WFP), the Zimbabwe Government has urgently provided 30,000 MT of cereals.

“While addressing the urgent lifesaving needs of the affected communities, the assistance needs to be delivered in a way that strengthens resilience of the affected communities to adapt to recurrent erratic rain patterns and natural disasters,” said Retired Colonel Christian Katsande, Deputy Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet, citing the limited alternative opportunities of the affected communities.

On behalf of the European Union (EU) Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Paula Vazquez Horyaans recognized that vast areas of Zimbabwe affected by structural food insecurity were aggravated by the effects of climate change and El Niño. She confirmed that the implementation of an EU-supported national resilience framework would help create a resilient nation – one capable of protecting development gains against shocks and stresses and supporting inclusive economic growth – and stressed the importance of a coordinated approach to emergency responses for strengthened medium- and long-term resilience coping mechanisms.

Reiterating the dire food security situation and looming El Nino effect on the next season, the UN Resident Coordinator called for concerted and pro-active action to address immediate needs and invest in national resilience-building efforts.

The UN agencies participating in the response to the food insecurity are the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), WFP and World Health Organization (WHO).

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Helen Clark: Speech at Side Event “Governments Leading the Way: Digitizing Payments and Advancing Inclusive Finance to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”

26 Sep 2015

We meet in the wake of the adoption of the new sustainable development agenda by world leaders yesterday. This was an historic moment; the moment when the world committed to poverty eradication in the context of sustainable development. The new agenda is about doing development differently so that both people and our planet benefit.

Member States have given finance and technology a prominent place in the Sustainable Development Goals. Inclusive finance alone is included in the targets of seven of the seventeen goals. Its potential to drive sustainable development forward - simultaneously reducing poverty, promoting food security, empowering women, and enabling economic growth has been well recognized.

The role of digital payments and other digital financial services are also recognised in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development. Specifically highlighted is the potential of digital financial services to drive down transaction costs, and to free up resources to fund development priorities. At the same time such services open up opportunities for the previously “unbanked” and “under-banked” to earn interest, avoid incurring expensive fees, apply for credit, and open registered businesses. This brings people and businesses into the formal economy.

Government leaders, ministers, and representatives speaking here today know well the benefits of going digital – for making transfer payments, for procurement, and for tax collection. By centralizing and digitizing its wage, pension, and welfare payments, the Government of Mexico made savings of $1.3 billion. Estimates suggest that fully automating the delivery of government payments in India could save the government more than $22 billion every year.

Reducing overheads, transaction costs, and fraud through digitisation also benefits consumers and households. Those being paid digitally under Colombia’s cash transfer program, for example, were able to open a bank account—enabling them to save as well as make and receive payments.

UNDP is well aware that moving to payments via mobile devices reduces risks of misappropriation, improves transparency, and provides a stronger audit trail. We ourselves are piloting the use of mobile money in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, and will draw on the lessons learned to expand this to other countries.

The challenge of making secure and reliable payments was paramount during the response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Response workers were needed urgently, and they needed to be paid. But to pay them correctly, it was important to know who they were, what they did, and how long they were working.

UNDP, with UNCDF technical support, brokered partnerships between the governments of the affected countries and private sector technology and mobile phone companies.

As a result, over 23,000 Ebola response workers were paid efficiently and transparently. They remain registered in the national hazard payroll system. The success demonstrated the need, wherever possible, to have such systems in place well before a disaster strikes.

This and other examples illustrate how important partnerships are to achieve development goals. With governments leading the way, development organizations such as UNDP and other members of the Better than Cash Alliance can help broker relationships with key partners in the private sector, civil society, and beyond.

As we move to implement Agenda 2030, we at UNDP and in the UN Development System more generally, are confident that digital payments and financial inclusion will be increasingly employed by governments and development actors in all walks of life. We look forward to working with you to this end.

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