We must ensure that El Niño does not have a child’s face

It can be all too easy to think of adverse weather events such as El Niño as simply that – a cyclical warming of Pacific ocean waters that causes varying types of unseasonal weather; rain, flooding and elevated sea levels affecting low-lying atoll nations near the equator, paralysing drought affecting more populous countries in the Pacific south west. In parallel with this, a longer and more intense cyclone season generated by El Niño threatens almost all Pacific countries – a phenomenon expected to last well into 2016.

It’s increasingly clear however, as this cycle makes itself felt, that El Niño cannot simply be described as an ‘adverse weather event’. If we do not act together in the Pacific region, El Niño (‘The Little Boy’ in Spanish) may have a child’s face.

Early reports suggest that children are already among those suffering most from the effects of El Niño. Vanuatu’s efforts to recover from Cyclone Pam, which destroyed food crops and water supplies across the country in March, have been hampered by the aggressive drought affecting many parts of the country.

Entire communities in Vanuatu are subsisting on ‘rope root’, a barely digestible root crop that provides a little temporary relief from hunger but very limited nutritional value. In combination with shortages in safe drinking water, diarrhoea and dehydration, these conditions are proving deadly, especially for the youngest, oldest and other very vulnerable people in communities. The first confirmed death on Tanna Island related to these conditions was of a two-year-old girl, one of many children in Vanuatu facing extreme health risks directly linked to El Niño. Unconfirmed reports of deaths in other Pacific countries suggest this is the beginning of a much bigger problem.

El Niño’s consequences spread far beyond health, nutrition and water supply. There are reports that schools in some affected countries are closing to allow children to help their families seek water – and to escape the oppressive heat. In turn, children straying far from home to seek water or playing unsupervised can face increased protection risks – and severe pressures on communities such as drought and hunger only increase the risk of family violence.

El Niño presents very real threats for more than four million people across the Pacific, in terms of their health, growth, development, learning, safety and wellbeing. If not carefully managed, these threats can have consequences that ripple through generations.

Governments across the Pacific recognise this threat and are moving to protect their populations as best they can. El Niño and La Niña cycles can be predicted and the international community has been working with Pacific governments for many months to support their preparedness efforts.

UNICEF is supporting children, families and governments as they respond to El Niño. In partnership with NGOs we are training and supporting grassroots health workers to identify and treat children who are showing signs of malnutrition and diarrhoea. We are supporting schools to stay open and provide food and water for their students through these challenging times, and our water, sanitation and hygiene teams are working around the clock to prevent the spread of disease and get water to communities that need it most. At all times we consider the specific needs of those who are most vulnerable, including pregnant and new mothers, very young children, adolescent girls and those with disabilities.

These are important steps but they are not enough. We are facing a humanitarian threat to the entire Pacific region – ‘quick fixes’ and half measures will not be enough. The response to El Niño will only be successful if it is led by governments and synchronised across all humanitarian actors, across multiple countries, as part of coordinated and focused efforts in partnership with communities and children. These efforts will need to be sustained over many months to ensure that we do not leave affected communities at risk of long-term impacts.

El Niño poses a huge threat to all Pacific countries. We must work together to ensure that we do not remember ‘the little boy’ as having a child’s face.

Dr. Karen Allen, UNICEF Pacific Representative