UN chief urges solidarity to combat effects of El Niño

By agency reporter
July 20, 2016

The lives and livelihoods of more than 60 million people around the world have been turned upside down by the extreme weather events linked to the El Niño phenomenon, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday (19 July 2016), calling for a scaled-up, unprecedented response that goes beyond humanitarian action.

“Extreme weather events reverse development gains. People and communities cannot escape poverty or banish hunger if their resources are wiped out by floods, storms or droughts every few years,” the Secretary-General said at a high-level event at the UN Headquarters in New York on Responding to the Impacts of and Mitigating Recurring Climate Risks, organised by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“Even when malnutrition is treated and children survive, they can be affected for life by stunting and impaired development. This has serious implications for education, the ability of people to make a living, and the opportunities for societies and nations to prosper and develop in a sustainable way,” he added.

El Niño is the term used to describe the warming of the central to eastern tropical Pacific that occurs, on average, every three to seven years. It raises sea surface temperatures and impacts weather systems around the globe so that some places receive more rain while others receive none at all, often in a reversal of their usual weather pattern.

The high-level meeting aimed to focus attention on the multi-dimensional impacts of El Niño and its links to human-induced climate change. While the El Niño event has returned to a neutral phase, its impacts on food security, livelihoods, health, nutrition, water and sanitation are likely to grow throughout this year.

The meeting also advocated for a proactive and preventive approach to a possible La Niña event later this year and future climate events.

In his remarks, the Secretary-General noted that he had personally witnessed the effects of El Niño in Ethiopia – where the phenomenon has affected millions of people – as well as during trips to Malawi, South Africa, Kenya and Rwanda.

In particular, he recalled that two days previously, he met with the Foreign Minister of Malawi and a team of UN agency representatives – including Kyung-Wha Kang, Assistant Secretary-General of OCHA, who was in the country on a fact-finding mission – and they had all expressed very serious concern about what is happening in the country.

In addition, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), Ertharin Cousin, is currently in Malawi to assess the impact of the El Niño-induced drought and to appeal on behalf of the 6.5 million people in need of urgent assistance.

Some 18 million people in the region’s hardest-hit countries (Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) are in need of emergency food support – a number that could surge to 33 million as the inter-harvest 'lean' season progresses according to the latest Southern African Development Community (SADC) projections.

WFP, however, has secured only a quarter of the $549 million needed for its relief operations until April 2017 in the seven priority drought-hit countries.

“The challenges to our response go far beyond humanitarian action,” the UN chief emphasised, adding that for many of the poorest and most vulnerable, extreme weather events linked to climate change could put the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at risk.

“This unprecedented challenge requires unprecedented changes in the way we work. It is crucial that we learn the lessons of this El Niño. We must prevent, prepare for and mitigate the effects of climate change, which has the greatest impact on those who have least responsibility for causing it,” the Secretary-General said.

Mr Ban highlighted that working together to reduce disaster risk was an important thread running through last year’s political achievements, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“This new way of working presents a challenge, but also provides an opportunity for progress,” the Secretary-General said, noting that many governments have shown great leadership in driving a coherent and effective emergency response to El Niño, allocating significant resources of their own, while others have been able to reduce risks and mitigate impacts so as not to require international assistance.

Still others, the UN chief said, have benefited from international solidarity expressed through resources from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which has provided $120 million to humanitarian partners for life-saving activities linked to El Niño in 19 countries.

“We must learn from these successful practices. We must scale up our response and share the burden of climate change more equitably, demonstrating greater solidarity with those in need,” Mr Ban said, calling on affected governments, donors, civil society, development and humanitarian actors, and private-sector partners to support the efforts of his two Special Envoys for El Niño and Climate, Mary Robinson and Macharia Kamau, in raising awareness and bringing greater resources to bear.

In an interview with UN Radio, Ms Robinson emphasised that El Niño is a normal weather pattern that has affected countries quite severely, and is now aggravated by climate change.

“The effect is overwhelming for countries. They are suffering huge drought and, in some cases, terrible flooding that has destroyed the capacity to plant and to sow and to harvest,” she said.


* Read the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction here

* Read the Paris Agreement on Climate Change here

* United Nations http://www.un.org/en/index.html

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