Water is life

Elena Guma with her child. Oxfam and local partner organisations are distributing up to 6,500 jerry cans. Danbagl Village, Simbu Province, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Rodney Dekker/Oxfam

We must not lose sight of the millions of people around the world who won’t have access to water as a super El Niño, boosted by climate change, will deepen drought and leave entire communities without enough food. 

We estimate that this year, El Niño could leave tens of millions of people facing hunger, water shortages and disease. With erratic rainfalls in some parts of the world and flooding in others, food security is at risk, and millions of families and communities that rely on crops and livestock farming could be at the brink of a humanitarian crisis. 

Oxfam is helping families worldwide to become more resilient to the devastating effects of climate change and El Niño, but more needs to be done.

These are their stories:

1. Rosa Yaneth Chávez, El Salvador

“Lo perdimos todo" dice Rosa Yaneth Chávez. “Nos fuimos a la cama sin comer. No podíamos dormir pensando en qué ibas a dar a tus hijos de comer." Foto: James Rodríguez / Oxfam América

Farmers in El Salvador have been experiencing almost four years of consecutive drought that, combined with other factors, have taken a toll on the rural economy leaving entire communities struggling to access water and food.

Rosa Yaneth Chávez, a mother of six who lives near the Salvadoran town of Berlin, describes the difficulties they went through in 2015. “We lost everything. Sometimes we ate two meals, sometimes one. We went to bed without eating. You can’t even sleep, thinking about what you are going to give your children. My children got sick from malnutrition.”

2. Buho Asowe Eye, Ethiopia

Buho Asowe Eye. Hariso IDP Center, Siti region, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is suffering the worst drought in the last 30 years and the search for water has become more desperate: women walk for two to six hours a day just to get water, and men have to dig wells deeper and deeper to access water.

‘The water is retreating deeper and deeper [when wells are dug]. Only Allah knows when it is going to come back. We are afraid it won’t. We live by water and our cattle live by water. Without water we are no more…. My greatest fear is if the trucks stop bringing water. What will happen to us?’

3. Silas Orrocco, Papua New Guinea 

Community leader Silas Orrocco shows the water level in one of his village’s two 90,000 litre water tanks. Photo: Rodney Dekker/Oxfam

Water supplies are running short in Sirumgoralo, Papua New Guinea and rivers and creeks are drying up. Papua New Guinea is currently the country worst hit by El Niño in the Pacific. 

Community leader Silas Orrocco, shows the water level in one of Sirumgoralo’s two 90,000 litre water tanks. Rainfall has been below average for almost a year and the drought combined with frost in the Highlands could affect almost 3 million people. Some communities say their food supplies will last two to three months; others say only a month.

4. Ipaishe Masvingise, Zimbabwe 

Ipaishe preparing to water her crop of wheat. Photo: Annie Bungeroth/Oxfam

Southern Africa is facing the worst drought in decades. The South African Development Communitys (SADC) has just announced a regional drought emergency triggered by El Niño. Approximately 28 - 30 million people in Southern Africa now face severe levels of food insecurity that, if no action is taken, could rise quickly to 49 million.

Ipaishe is now campaigning to get more irrigation systems in her region as the rain pattern over the past decade has been so erratic – to an extent that at times it may fall so hard and flood the crops, but at other times it may come and go earlier than expected, and everything dries out. 

“Such unreliable rainfall pattern has driven us to adapt – but also to call for help.  We need support so we can continue to drink clean water and to protect ourselves from waterborne diseases like malaria and cholera.”

5. Paku Dick, Papua New Guinea

Paku Dick, 25, with her son Dixon, 4, in her sweet potato plot impacted by drought and pests. Photo: Rodney Dekker/Oxfam

Paku lives with her son, Dixon, 4, and says this is the worst drought of all. “Sometimes the soil gets really dry, it affects the plants”. There is a shortage of food. During drought they need to resort to eating banana roots and unripe boiled bananas.

Papua New Guinea is the worst hit country by El Niño in the Pacific. Across the Pacific, it is estimated that almost 4.7 million people face hunger, poverty and disease due to El Nino related droughts, erratic rains and frosts. Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Tonga are experiencing worsening drought, while central Pacific countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu will likely see intense rain causing flooding, and higher sea levels.

El Niño and Climate Change

El Niño is a natural climate phenomenon that occurs every few years. It happens due to a heating up of the surface of the tropical Pacific Ocean that causes changes to ocean currents and wind patterns, which creates a release of heat into the atmosphere. These have a strong influence on global weather patterns. 

Evidence suggests that the cause-effect relationship between El Niño and climate change is likely to be a reciprocal one: while climate change boosts the probability of a ‘super’ El Niño developing, El Niño, in turn, exacerbates climate change by releasing a large amount of heat from the Pacific Ocean.

Act Now

World leaders can prevent this worsening food crisis from spiralling out of control. 

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