The El Niño Aftermath: Tracking Hunger in the Millions in Southern Africa

We’ve been writing a lot about how mVAM can help in conflict situations where whole areas are cut off because of violence or an epidemic (see our blogs on Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and article on Ebola). But over the past year, the world was disrupted by another type of event- a climatic one: El Niño. The El Niño weather pattern results from a warming of sea temperatures in the Pacific roughly every three to seven years. This El Niño was one of the strongest on record.  The reason why El Niño was so concerning is its global reach, it didn’t just affect the Pacific; places as far away as Guatemala, Pakistan, Indonesia and Ethiopia were all at risk of floods and/or droughts. While the El Niño itself has abated, it has left millions hungry in its wake (current estimates are that 60 million people are food insecure globally). And a La Niña year is looming.

One area that has been particularly affected is Southern Africa. Across the region, this year’s rainfall season was the driest in the last 35 years. Most farmers are facing significantly reduced and delayed harvests.

El Niño hit when Southern Africa was already vulnerable to food insecurity. The region had already experienced a poor 2014-15 harvest season, meaning that food stocks were already depleted. Now, after El Niño, roughly 41 million people are classified as food insecure. On 13 June 2016 WFP categorized the region as an L3 emergency – a situation requiring the highest level of humanitarian support. We’re therefore dramatically expanding our national food security monitoring in the region so WFP can quickly provide as much relevant food security information as possible to effectively respond to the crisis.

Predictions that this El Niño would have a big effect had already started coming in 2015 so we began setting up mobile monitoring in countries that were particularly vulnerable to El Niño. We started in Malawi which had very disruptive weather patterns looming (potentially too much rain in the north and huge rainfall deficits in the south). We lacked current household data to track the impact on food security across the country.

To get information quickly and cheaply, we started a monthly SMS survey with GeoPoll in December 2015. And Malawians sure were quick to respond! In 24 hours, we had 1,000 questionnaires completed.  When analyzing the results, we wanted to make sure people were understanding our texts. The adult literacy rate in Malawi is only 61.3% so we kept the questionnaire short and as simple as possible. We included questions for one food security indicator- the reduced coping strategy index (rCSI) which asks people about the coping strategies they are using when they don’t have enough to eat. We also checked that the data made sense, and in general, the rCSI behaved as we would suspect. It was correlated with people’s messages about their community’s food security situation and their wealth status. As with all of our surveys, we are continually improving them. In this case, we increased our sample size and district quotas to capture more people in rural areas.

Monitoring Maize Prices

IMG_0095Market prices, especially maize prices, are key to Malawians’ food security. Maize is the staple food, used to make nsima which is consumed daily. So to monitor market prices in 17 hotspot districts, we collected phone numbers from over 100 traders in 51 markets throughout Malawi. We first tried asking them prices by text message, but we didn’t receive many responses.  It seems like sending back a series of texts is a bit too much to ask of traders who volunteered out of their own good will to participate in our market survey. We therefore set up a small call center in WFP’s country office. We trained two operators, and they were quickly placing calls to traders every week. When they could just answer a quick phone call instead of having to type in answers, traders willingly reported current commodity prices.

Our latest report from June 2016 shows that maize prices are now between 50 and 100 percent higher than this time last year. This is having a big effect on Malawians. As you can see from our word cloud, alarmingly ‘not-enough’ featured prominently in our open ended question about maize.

word cloud_cropped

Nutrition Surveillance for the first time

In most countries, we have been concentrating on household level indicators like food consumption. But health centers treating malnutrition could potentially give us important indications of the nutrition situation of different parts of the country. In Malawi, WFP works with health centers to address moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) in Malawi by providing fortified blended foods. So to make the most of our call center, we decided to call these health centers every two weeks and track malnutrition admission data for children (aged 6-59 months) and for adults with HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis. In the first six weeks of monitoring, we saw a big increase in the number of moderate acute malnutrition admissions for children increased greatly where severe acute malnutrition rates did not show a clear pattern. We dug further, and the Ministry of Health had initiated mass screenings to enroll malnourished children in nutrition programmes which generally pick up moderately malnourished children. With health center admission data, it’s important to check what else is going on in the country. We’re hoping to soon pilot contacting mothers of malnourished children about their children’s progress to gain additional insight into the nutrition status of vulnerable populations in Malawi.

Now that we have Malawi firmly established, we’ve started reporting on Madagascar and our data collection is ongoing in Zambia, Lesotho and Mozambique. So watch this space for more news about how we get on in these next few months.

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