ROME • The number of people affected by the combined impact of the El Nino and La Nina weather patterns could exceed 100 million by the end of the year.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that more than 60 million people, two-thirds of them in east and southern Africa, are facing food shortages because of droughts linked to El Nino, a climate phenomenon that occurs when water in the Pacific Ocean becomes abnormally warm.
The impact of La Nina, when waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean cool after a phase of El Nino, is not as severe, but the weather pattern has also been linked to floods and droughts.
"EL Nino has caused primarily a food and agricultural crisis," said FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva on Wednesday, at a meeting of UN agencies in Rome to discuss the impact of El Nino in Africa and the Asia-Pacific.
He said almost US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) was needed to meet the humanitarian demands of countries affected by El Nino.
The UN has called on governments and the international community to increase efforts to boost the resilience of "highly vulnerable" communities that are struggling to feed themselves, as well as to help them prepare for La Nina.
The FAO is mobilising extra funding for agriculture, food and nutrition, and to invest in disaster preparedness, Mr Graziano da Silva said. "It (the FAO) will finance early actions that prevent unfolding disasters from happening," he added.
The El Nino-induced drought damaged crops from palm oil, rice and sugar in Asia to grains in southern Africa and robusta coffee in South America.
Storms spurred by the phenomenon have wiped out harvests in Fiji and some of its neighbouring island states, the FAO said. The organisation is on standby to provide emergency seeds and tools in Vietnam, where drought and saltwater intrusion are threatening farmers' livelihoods, and where the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development is also supporting growers.
More than 7.6 million people have received food assistance from the World Food Programme in Ethiopia and a further 260,000 have been helped in Papua New Guinea.
Southern Africa had a three- month "window of opportunity" before the 2016/2017 planting season to take urgent measures to prevent millions of rural families from becoming dependent on humanitarian assistance in 2018, according to the FAO.
Mr Macharia Kamau, UN special envoy on El Nino and climate, said a failure to adapt to the "new normal" of increasing climate-related emergencies like El Nino and La Nina would threaten progress on UN development goals.
"Both rapid and slow-onset climactic events are exposing years of poor investment and preparedness, demanding a much better financed and integrated response," he said.
"These climactic events are also exposing the vulnerability of our grand plans for fighting poverty and sustaining our infrastructure."
Weather forecasters in Japan, Australia and the United States predict a 50 to 75 per cent chance of La Nina developing in the second half of this year.