4 reasons why a million children are at risk as El Niño ravages Ethiopia

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s the worst drought Ethiopia has seen in over 3 decades. Crops are ruined. Streams, rivers and lakes have dried up, and an estimated 10.2 million people are in need of emergency food aid.

Across southern and eastern Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia, the extreme effects of El Niño – a weather phenomenon caused by unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean – are leaving many families vulnerable to hunger, malnutrition, disease and displacement.

ethiopian girls carrying water jug

In these harsh times, children are affected the most. According to the World Health Organization, over 400,000 Ethiopian children face severe malnutrition, while another 1 million face moderate malnutrition. Without emergency aid and support, malnutrition can quickly turn to illness, which can eventually lead to death.

And if that’s not unsettling enough, here are 4 reasons why El Niño is a threat to children’s rights.

1. It’s detrimental to children’s futures

More than 80% of the Ethiopian population live in rural areas and rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods. However, El Niño has decreased the yearly rains for two consecutive seasons, making it near impossible for farmers to grow crops and maintain their livestock.

With a severe food shortage, children are at risk of under nourishment, which can lead to stunted growth, delayed mental development, illness and even death. Additionally, emotional distress is a huge risk as emergencies decrease children’s sense of security and stability.

2. It’s forcing schools to close

El Niño has produced conflicting weather patterns across Ethiopia – it has triggered drought in large parts of the country and flooding in others.

In areas where flooding has occurred, schools have been damaged or destroyed, leaving children with little choice but to stay home. Drought-stricken areas, on the other hand, see higher rates of school dropouts because of pressure on the children to either walk long distances to fetch water or earn additional income to make up for rising food prices brought on by the drought.

woman walking with donkey

Woman walks through a dried out pond as she searches for water

3. It’s increasing the threat of disease

During a drought, water-borne diseases are rampant because the surface of safe water sources dry up, leaving water that is heavily contaminated. Drinking this water can lead to illness, including diarrhea – one of the world’s biggest killers of children under 5.

In addition, shallow pools of stagnant water act as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, increasing the risk of malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever.

4. It’s impacting girls’ safety

Research shows that gender inequality is often exacerbated in times of crisis. When it comes to removing children from school, girls will typically be selected first since their education is not considered as valuable in some communities.

Furthermore, the responsibility of walking long distances under the hot sun to find water will often fall on girls’ shoulders, exposing them to exhaustion and even abuse. In extreme instances, some families marry off their daughters because it means they have one less mouth to feed.

What is Plan International doing to help?

Plan International has been working in Ethiopia for over 40 years. During that time, the country has made tremendous progress in terms of preparing for weather-related crises, and protecting families against food insecurity. And while El Niño threatens these advances, there are many ways to help mitigate the impact on children and vulnerable families.

Man weighing baby

Plan International staff weighing children under 5 at a relief and distribution centre

As of April 2016, Plan International has supported nearly 35,000 households – including 174,000 children – to access life-saving essentials like water, food and medicine. We have also provided over 13,000 people, including parents with children under 5 years old, with formal health education on how to prevent malnutrition and improve sanitation.

Disaster risk reduction and preparedness are also a priority, and we are working to create stronger, more resilient communities that are equipped with the skills to respond and adapt to crisis.

How can you help?

You can help save the lives of children and mothers facing malnutrition in the developing world with the gift of a food basket. Your gift will provide basic staples that will make a big impact, like beans, cooking oil, fortified cereal blends and sugar.

Buy a food basket!