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We cannot celebrate signing a global climate agreement while failing to act on El Niño
Today in New York, world leaders will put their signatures to the most far-reaching global climate agreement ever, the result of the COP21 talks in Paris last year. But while the celebrations at the United Nations provide an important opportunity to raise the profile of climate change, the agreement is already being tested in what is building up to be one of the biggest climate emergencies yet.
Millions of people across Africa are currently suffering from one of the worst droughts in history, but world leaders are failing to act. Climate change is providing the lethal spike in a cocktail of unusual weather patterns in several African nations.
Every few years the world experiences an El Niño, whose innocent name (meaning ‘the child’ in Spanish) conceals the true nature of a recurring weather pattern that causes huge swathes of warming across land and sea. Experts now believe that climate change has made this year’s El Niño the strongest and most destructive on record.
In East and Southern Africa the particular impact is drought - the worst for 50 years in Ethiopia and the worst for 35 in Malawi and Zimbabwe. It is thought 60 million people across the world will feel its damaging impact this year.
I was in Zimbabwe last week and saw for myself the devastation of the El Niño drought. Farmers handed me shrivelled-up pieces of corn as testament to the failure of last month’s harvest. Mothers told me the only food they’ve got left to give to their children is bananas. And as we travelled through the rural landscape in the east of the country, the dry vegetation and minimal livestock told the same grim story.
For Zimbabwe alone, the number of people affected is already alarming. The government there estimates that 4 million people, a third of the country’s population, need food aid and the United Nations believes around 33,000 children are acutely malnourished.
The statistics become even more eye-watering when you add to that the 3 million in need of emergency food aid in Malawi, the 400,000 people in Somaliland, and, incredibly, the 10 million people in Ethiopia.
This extreme El Niño is wreaking devastation across Africa, and indeed many other countries worldwide. But the worst effects are still to come. As the crisis bites and uses up scarce food reserves, the number of people needing aid is set to increase substantially.
MORE FUNDING NEEDED
It is clear that this is not just any drought. Its scale and impact is overwhelming, and for many countries, the drought has already tipped the balance of what is manageable. Zimbabwe, Somaliland and Malawi have all already declared national states of emergency as a call for more international assistance.
ActionAid and other aid agencies are rallying to provide what support we can, but for the moment we can only reach the very most vulnerable people. In Zimbabwe, we are giving food supplements to new and expectant mothers and young children to counter malnutrition; we’re providing cash transfers to poor families and rehabilitating water sources. But with more funds we could do so much more.
Aid agencies, the United Nations and governments in El Niño-affected countries desperately need more cash to make a dent in the staggeringly high statistics. U.N. appeals for Ethiopia and Malawi currently stand half empty, with the worst effects of the drought yet to come. But the more that is done now, the better countries will be able to prepare for the months ahead. Early action could save millions of lives.
El Niño highlights that the Paris Agreement was an important step forward in tackling climate change, but we must be under no illusion that the job is anywhere near complete. Pledges for climate action and financial support to affected countries are far from adequate. We need to go much further to have a chance of saving our planet from more climate disasters.
World leaders must now move away from rhetoric and put money into immediate action. The more investment the world makes in adapting to climate change now, the better people will be able to cope in the future. We cannot celebrate signing a global climate agreement while failing to act on El Niño.
Adriano Campolina is chief executive of ActionAid International.