Southern African countries have launched an emergency appeal for $2.8bn (£2.1bn) to help feed nearly 40 million people hit by one of the worst regional droughts in 35 years.
According to the South African Development Community, which comprises 15 countries, 23 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance and a further 13 million are food insecure following the strongest El Niño event recorded.
Food shortages are expected to peak between October, when supplies will run lowest, and March, when the next harvest is due, so the number of people in extreme need is expected to rise significantly if insufficient assistance is given.
The US has pledged $127m (£97m), lifting its contribution to the region to about $300m. Britain has delivered $250m to Africa since July 2015 as part of its El Niño response, and the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy last week announced pledges totalling $22m.
But the gap between funds needed and pledged is thought to have risen to more than $4bn. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, $6bn has been requested by the governments of the 60-odd countries affected by El Niño but less than $2bn has been pledged.
“Mobilising humanitarian assistance will be critical to save lives and reduce suffering. Our additional contribution will help meet growing needs by providing emergency food assistance, nutrition and health support, access to safe drinking water, and seeds ahead of the upcoming planting season to promote agricultural recovery,” said a USAid spokesman.
“It has been clear for months that this drought is having a devastating impact on the southern Africa region, and we know things could get even worse. People are struggling now. They have watched their crops wither and their animals starve to death. Even in the best-case scenario the next major harvest is not expected until early next year,” said Rebecca Sutton, Oxfam’s El Niño campaign manager.
“Given the scope of the disaster globally the shortfall of $4bn needed for this crisis is shocking. This disaster is too big for just a handful of donors who have given generously to be relied upon; others need to step up.”
“The full force of the emergency will be felt over the coming months,” said Save the Children’s east and southern Africa regional director, David Wright. “Harvests will continue to fail; families will run out of essentials as their livelihoods dry up or are washed away; and children forced from their homes will leave healthcare, security and loved ones behind.
“The sheer scale of the crisis far outstrips the coping capacities of communities and the resources of governments, putting decades of development gains at risk.”
Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme who was recently in Malawi, said the situation was worrying. “I heard and saw first-hand the hardships and worries … El Niño’s impact in Malawi alone has been severe: 6.5 million people will endure food insecurity, almost 40% of the population.”
The UK’s international development minister James Wharton said, “Widespread drought means millions of people across Africa are being forced to go without vital food and clean water, while others are being displaced by severe flooding, losing their homes and their livelihoods.
“The UK is leading the way in helping to prevent and prepare for the impact of El Niño by providing lifesaving food, water and shelter to people in urgent need. Support for people affected by El Niño is important to Africa and firmly in Britain’s interest.”
The UN has warned that humanitarian disasters are to be expected with climate change.
“This is a human-induced aggravation of a traditional weather pattern. We’re into a new normal where it is no longer El Niño – it is El Niño affected by climate change,” said Mary Robinson, UN special envoy on El Niño and climate.
“The international community has to take responsibility, particularly the countries that are more responsible for [carbon] emissions.”
Countries across five continents have called states of emergency. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, other countries seriously affected by El Niño include: