El Niño pushes millions of children into malnutrition

Study shows that warmer, drier El Niño conditions increase undernutrition in children across most of the tropics, where 20% of the kids are already deemed severely underweight by the World Health Organization

El Niño pushes millions of children into malnutrition

El Niño is a major source of climate variability known to affect social, economic and health worldwide. It is a climate pattern that describes the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. It has an impact on ocean temperatures, the speed of ocean currents, the health of coastal fisheries, and local weather from Australia to South America and beyond. El Niño events, which occur irregularly at two- to seven-year intervals, cause the weather patterns to shift across the tropics, leading to warmer temperatures and precipitation changes; these have widespread implications on agriculture, infectious diseases, drought, and flood across the globe.

Climatologists determined that El Niño occurs simultaneously with the Southern Oscillation due to a change in air pressure over the tropical Pacific Ocean. When the coastal waters in the eastern tropical Pacific become warmer, the atmospheric pressure decreases. Climatologists define these phenomena as El Niño -Southern Oscillation (ENSO), following the research done by Sir Gilbert Walker in the 1930s.

Stronger El Niño events also disrupt global atmospheric circulation which is the large-scale movement of air that helps distribute heat across the surface of the Earth. The eastward movement of oceanic and atmospheric heat sources causes unusually severe winter weather at the higher latitudes of North and South America. Strong El Niño events contribute sometimes to weaker monsoons in India and Southeast Asia, while there is increased precipitation during the rainy season in sub-Saharan Africa.

El Niño also produces widespread and sometimes severe changes in the climate. Convection above warmer surface waters promotes increased precipitation. Rainfall increases drastically in Ecuador and northern Peru, contributing to coastal flooding and erosion. Rains and floods may destroy homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses. While El Niño brings rain to South America, it brings droughts to Indonesia and Australia. These droughts threaten the region’s water supplies, as reservoirs run dry and rivers carry less water. Finally, agriculture, which depends on water for irrigation, is threatened.

Some communities that are devastated by ENSO-related natural hazards such as flood/drought, and extreme weather encounter different epidemic diseases. ENSO-related flooding is associated with increases in cholera, dengue, and malaria in some parts of the world, while drought can lead to wildfires that produce respiratory problems. ENSO may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts since 1950, with the risk of annual civil conflict doubling from 3% to 6% in countries affected by ENSO during El Niño years.

The teleconnection of ENSO has destabilizing effects on agriculture, economic production, and social stability throughout areas of the global tropics. It has been linked to human health outcomes directly through its effects on vector- and water-borne infectious diseases, as well as indirectly by decreasing agricultural yields and increasing food insecurity and the likelihood of conflict. ENSO’s adverse effects on yields are particularly acute in the tropics, where the vulnerable population of food-insecure children is larger, and temperatures are closer to critical crop-collapse thresholds.

In a study published in October 2021, Anttila-Hughes and co-authors estimate El Niño's impacts on child nutrition throughout the global tropics by assembling data on more than a million children spanning four decades in developing countries. Their analysis shows that warmer, drier El Niño conditions increase undernutrition in children across most of the tropics, where 20% of the kids are already deemed severely underweight by the World Health Organization (WHO). That percentage surges by 2.9% during El Niño years, affecting millions of children.

In the case of the severe 2015 El Niño, the number of children at or below the WHO threshold for severely underweight children surged by nearly 6 per cent (6 million) children driven into hunger. While the children's weight appears to recuperate with time, the shock on their nutrition at such a young age stunts their growth in later years.

The international community is working to eliminate all forms of malnutrition by 2030, by targeting about 6 million children to rise out of severe hunger each year, as part of the Sustainable Development Goal-2. With less than 10 years remaining to meet that goal, the 2015 El Niño erased one year of progress. To counteract the impacts of the 2015 El Niño would require providing 134 million children with micronutrient supplements or 72 million food-insecure children with food, the study finds. It's a real tragedy that even in the 21st century so much of the human population is pushed to desperation by predictable climate processes.

While it is unclear whether climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of El Niño, climate change will cause hot areas to become hotter and dry areas to become drier. When El Niño is layered on top of these overall shifts, there is no doubt that the impacts during El Niño years will be worse than they are now. For example as areas expect to lose crops with climate change, those same areas will likely lose even more crops during El Niño years.

The impacts of El Niño that come from a hotter, drier climate are becoming more global in scale with climate change. Since El Niño occurs once every few years, we know they're coming, and still many countries don't have contingency plans for many of these climate shifts – from isolated heat waves to hurricanes. The disaster-in-coming related to these events will become a lot less predictable as the climate changes. We need to be prepared for the worse.

(The author is a scientist; researches on global climate change issues, and a freelance writer)   

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