El Nino puts millions in childhood malnutrition: study

Yemeni medics feed malnourished sisters at a medical centre in the war-ravaged western province of Hodeida on June 5, 2021. (Photo by Khaled Ziad / AFP)

by Patrick GALEY
Agence France-Presse

PARIS, France (AFP) – Changing rain patterns caused by the El Nino warming phenomenon frequently drives millions of children into malnutrition and saddles them with life-long health issues, researchers said Tuesday, calling for action against the “predictable” impact.

El Nino is a periodic event that affects global weather patterns, occurring every few years when eastern Pacific Ocean waters get unusually warm, leading to heavy rain in some regions but relative drought in others.

US-based researchers examined 40 years worth of data for more than one million children across all developing country regions and compared their weight in El Nino with non-El Nino years.

c Pixel-level monthly correlation of surface temperature (1980–2010) from the UDEL climate dataset and 2-month lag of NINO3.4 Sea Surface Temperature (SST) in teleconnected locations. Teleconnections are defined as pixels where the local temperature shows ≥3 statistically significant months of correlation with the second month lag of NINO3.4 SSTs. Country boundaries indicate sample countries (those having at least 50% of the population living in locations where local temperature is significantly correlated with the second month lag (t – 2) of the NINO3.4 SST index for at least 3 months of the year and with at least two Demographic and Health Surveys measuring anthropometrics). d Pixel-level monthly correlation of precipitation (1980–2010) and 2-month lag NINO3.4 SST. There is substantial heterogeneity in how precipitation is affected by ENSO, with areas of both positive and negative correlation. Country boundaries again show sample countries. (Nature Communications/https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-26048-7)

They found that warmer and drier El Nino conditions increased childhood malnutrition across the tropics — a part of the world where 20 percent of children are already severely underweight.

Crucially, while the children’s weight appeared to rebound following an El Nino, the shock to their nutrition caused by the phenomenon led to stunted growth for years.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the team found that a typical El Nino event saw childhood malnutrition rates soar as much as three times higher than that witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It would have been very difficult to prepare the world for a pandemic that few saw coming,” said co-author Amir Jina, from the Harris School of Public Policy.

“But we can’t say the same about El Nino events that have a potentially much greater impact on the long-term growth and health of children.”

In 2015, a particularly strong El Nino year, the team found that an additional six million children were driven into malnutrition.

While it is unclear if global heating will increase the frequency of El Nino years, it is already making hot and dry areas hotter and drier.

The authors of Tuesday’s paper said that El Nino had contributed heavily in holding back the developing world’s efforts to reduce hunger.

But since the event can be predicted by climatologists at least six months in advance, they called for governments to integrate El Nino into their humanitarian plans.

“These are routine events in the climate that lead to real tragedy around the world,” said Jesse Anttila-Hughes, from the University of San Francisco.

Millions of children who must be targeted with specific interventions in order to reverse the effects on malnourishment caused by the 2015 El Niño. Effect sizes calculated using treatment effects in Bhutta et al.37. Bars represent the central estimate, with whiskers representing the 95% confidence interval of these estimates. See supplementary information for details of calculation. (Nature Communications/https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-26048-7)

Anttila-Hughes said that further study of how El Nino affects crop cycles on a regional level could provide insight into how food systems globally are likely to adapt to a warming world.

“But the fact that we live through an El Nino every few years, we know they’re coming, and we still don’t act is a bad sign since many of these climate shifts… will be a lot less predictable as the climate changes,” he said.