As El Niño Strengthens, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network Forecasts Mixed Impacts on Food Security
New El Niño alert includes food security projections for 31 countries
The ongoing El Niño is expected to both positively and negatively affect food security across the world, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).
In a new alert, FEWS NET explains how some regions will likely benefit from increased rainfall associated with El Niño, while others will be adversely impacted by the effects of below-average rains and high temperatures.
This strong El Niño event, which is forecast to continue gaining strength through the end of 2023 and dissipate by mid-2024, is expected to contribute to high levels of acute food insecurity in certain regions. FEWS NET projections indicate that 105-110 million people across 31 countries will need food assistance through at least early 2024 as a result of conflict, weather and economic shocks.
“COVID’s economic impacts ignited a worldwide food insecurity crisis in 2020 that continued to grow as prices for food, fuel and fertilizer climbed. While international prices are now starting to come down, local prices remain high in many places, making it difficult for people to afford their basic needs. Meanwhile, continuing global shocks like Russia’s war on Ukraine, climate change and biodiversity loss are exerting unrelenting pressures on those who struggle hardest to put food on the table. Local and regional shocks in the form of conflict are devastating lives,” FEWS NET team leader Kiersten Johnson said. “It is in this context that the current El Niño event represents the potential for yet another shock — too little rain in some places, too much in others — to communities that may not have recovered from the crises of the past few years. And it is for these communities that we are deeply concerned.”
Growing food assistance needs expected in Southern Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean
Southern Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) are likely to bear the brunt of El Niño’s adverse effects, particularly during the 2023-2024 lean season, after the August postharvest period in Southern Africa and during the April-July lean season in LAC.
During previous El Niño years, maize production in Southern Africa has suffered as a result of below-average rains and above-average temperatures, with harvest deficits ranging from 10-15% on average, and up to 50% during strong El Niño events.
According to FEWS NET, abnormal weather patterns associated with El Niño are likely to result in below-average maize harvests in 2024. With less locally produced food available for poor families to consume or sell, purchasing food at the market will become increasingly unaffordable.
A below-average 2024 harvest as a result of El Niño would come on the heels of another poor harvest that occurred in some areas of Southern Africa — including parts of Zimbabwe, southern Malawi, southern and central Mozambique and southern Madagascar — as a result of cyclones and irregular rainfall in 2023.
If El Niño generates severe drought conditions, parts of Southern Africa could experience crop failure, livestock deaths and even higher levels of acute food insecurity than are currently forecast.
El Niño is also expected to disrupt normal weather patterns in areas of Central America where many people rely on growing their own crops to meet their daily needs. Across the Dry Corridor of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, and in northern Honduras, subsistence farmers are predicted to lose up to 25% of their crops, and water availability for human and livestock use is also expected to decline.
Throughout the LAC region, the combination of lower rains, erratic rainfall distribution, higher temperatures and decreased seed availability is expected to negatively impact harvests in late 2023 and early 2024.
Increased rains likely to ease drought effects in Eastern Horn of Africa, Afghanistan
The eastern Horn of Africa and Afghanistan — two regions currently suffering from the impacts of prolonged, multiseason droughts — are expected to experience above-average rains that improve water availability and agriculture production, reducing food assistance needs through early 2024.
In most areas of the eastern Horn of Africa, historical data from previous El Niño events suggests that heavy rain will support above-average harvests and increases in livestock reproduction. Heavy rains are also expected to help increase the amount of land that farmers can plant crops on. This helps improve food security by increasing the amount of food that is grown, and by providing opportunities for people to earn income from selling their agricultural labor or harvested crops.
Although increased rains brought on by El Niño are expected to aid drought recovery in some areas of the eastern Horn of Africa, certain low-lying and riverine areas may experience flooding under possible extreme rainfall conditions, which would lead to short-term population displacement, crop damage and disease, including cholera or malaria among people and Rift Valley Fever among livestock.
In Afghanistan, increased rainfall as a result of the current El Niño is also likely to have positive impacts on water availability and agricultural production, supporting an expected decline in food assistance needs compared to recent years.
These expected improvements in Afghanistan will come on top of the fact that 2022-2023 wheat production in Afghanistan was more favorable than the preceding two years. Furthermore, staple food prices have generally declined, allowing for improved household purchasing power. Food and income generated from the upcoming 2024 wheat harvest is expected to further improve food availability for millions of households.
FEWS NET will continue to track the ongoing El Niño and provide updates on food security outcomes in the countries and regions it monitors. Subscribe to FEWS NET updates to receive food security forecasts directly in your inbox, and follow FEWS NET on Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates.