LONDON, Dec 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions more people globally are facing the threat of severe food and water shortages in early 2016 as droughts and flooding devastate crops and strain a humanitarian system already struggling to meet needs, aid agencies warned.
The weather disturbances caused by this year's El Niño, described by the United Nations as the worst in nearly two decades, come as conflict and persecution drive the number of people forced to flee their homes to a record of more than 60 million.
Agencies including Oxfam, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and Care International said the double hit of extreme weather and war had increased the need for assistance and funding and it was critical to get help to vulnerable communities to stop the situation from getting worse.
In Ethiopia, the government estimates 10.2 million people in a population of 94 million will need humanitarian aid in 2016 due to drought exacerbated by El Niño, while Papua New Guinea's government estimates three in seven people are drought-affected.
"Millions of people in places like Ethiopia, Haiti and Papua New Guinea are already feeling the effects of drought and crop failure," Jane Cocking, Oxfam GB's Humanitarian Director, said in a statement.
"Aid agencies are already stretched responding to the crises in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen. We cannot afford to allow other large-scale emergencies to develop elsewhere. If the world waits to respond to emerging crises in southern Africa and Latin America, we will not be able to cope."
The WFP estimated that in 2015 about 795 million people were going hungry, 98 percent in developing countries.
The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said it warned in March that the current El Niño would be strong and it now appeared to be the strongest episode in 18 years that would peak at the start of 2016 - before the usual harvest time for farmers in southern Africa.
POOR START TO 2016
"The likelihood of another poor season is troublesome as it comes on the heels of a poor one that has already depleted inventories, tightened supplies and pushed up local prices," the FAO's Deputy Strategic Programme Leader of Resilience, Shukri Ahmed, said in a statement.
Cocking said South Africa has already declared several provinces as disaster areas due to drought, and Malawi estimates 2.8 million people will require humanitarian aid before March.
Care International's country director in Ethiopia, Garth Van't Hul said previous experience highlighted the importance of getting supplies to those in need in time to prevent significantly increased malnutrition rates.
"This is a critical moment for the Ethiopian people and for the international community to step up," he said in a statement.
"We are also greatly concerned by the disproportionate burden this crisis is placing on women and girls, who are largely responsible for ensuring families have food and water."
Across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, about two million people already need food aid after drought and erratic rains, with more floods expected in January, Cocking said.
The WFP voiced concern about the situation in Yemen where families in war-torn Taiz have been going hungry for weeks.
Muhannad Hadi, WFP regional director, called on all parties to allow safe passage of food to Taiz, one of 10 of 22 governorates facing severe food shortages in Yemen where an estimated 7.6 million of 24 million people are going hungry.
"The precarious situation in Taiz has hampered WFP's efforts to reach impoverished people, especially in besieged parts of the city, who have not had access to food for many weeks," he said in a statement.
"WFP has delivered food assistance to Taiz governorate in the hope of reaching every person in need, but so far we have not been able to reach most of them," he said.
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)