Almost 6 million children are driven into undernutrition during a single bad El Niño year, a figure that is up to three times the number of children who have gone hungry due to the pandemic, a new study has found.
Every four to seven years, an El Niño triggers weather pattern shifts across the tropics, resulting in warmer temperatures, precipitation changes and pervasive impacts on agriculture, infectious diseases and world conflicts, according to the study, published on Tuesday in Nature Communications.
But because El Niños are predictable, the authors contend that these events provide a snapshot into a future transformed by climate change and showcase the damage that a lack of proactive policy action can bring.
“It would have been very difficult to prepare the world for a pandemic that few saw coming, but we can’t say the same about El Niño events that have a potentially much greater impact on the long-term growth and health of children,” Amir Jina, a study coauthor and assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, said in a news release.
Scientists, Jina explained, can forecast an El Niño up to six months in advance, which enables the international community to intervene and avert the worst effects of the storms.
In addition to the publication of the new study, the researchers unveiled the first estimate of El Niño’s effects on child nutrition in the tropics. They calculated this estimate by collecting data on more than a million children across four decades and all developing country regions. They examined the children’s weight in El Niño years versus non-El Niño years, as well as the years before and after the El Niño began.
Ultimately, they found that warmer, drier El Niño conditions exacerbated undernutrition in children across most of the tropics — a region where about 20 percent of children are already defined as severely underweight by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Because the sample data represented about half of the world’s 600 million children under 5 years old, that spike in undernutrition — an additional 2.9 percent increase — means that millions of additional children are affected during El Niño years, according to the authors. In the case of the severe 2015 El Niño, the WHO threshold for kids severely underweight rose by almost 6 percent, or an additional 6 million children suffering from hunger, the study found.
With less than 10 years left to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating all forms of undernutrition by 2030 — and to offset the effects of the 2015 El Niño — the international community must provide 134 million children with micronutrient supplements or 72 million food insecure children with sustenance, according to the authors.
“Studying El Niño can teach us about the impacts that come from a hotter, drier climate—important lessons as these changes become more global in scale with climate change,” coauthor Jesse Anttila-Hughes, from the University of San Francisco, said in the news release.
“But the fact that we live through an El Niño every few years, we know they’re coming, and we still don’t act is a bad sign since many of these climate shifts—from isolated heat waves to hurricanes—will be a lot less predictable as the climate changes.”