A recurrent phenomenon, El Niño poses a great threat to human food systems, habitation and livelihoods. Last year’s episode may have been the most damaging for a decade and a half: it has affected 60 million people so far, and the number is growing.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned of a global food security as a result, stretching many countries’ resources and ability to cope. We have been scaling up relief operations to assist communities grappling with El Niño’s impact, while working closely with national governments for best local responses.

We are providing emergency food where needed, and cash to buy food where markets are functioning. In Ethiopia, enough food has been dispatched to assist ten million people; another 200,000 Ethiopians are benefitting from cash-based transfers. In Malawi, we have extended by a month our response to the ‘lean season’. In Zimbabwe – funding permitting – our relief programme is set to continue through this year and into the next. In Lesotho, we have launched cash-based transfers for thousands of people in two of the worst-hit districts. Part of our response involves the provision of specialized nutrition support to prevent malnutrition in pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and young children. Where necessary, we are providing treatment for moderate acute malnutrition.

In some countries, meanwhile, innovative insurance schemes are helping soften the blow. In Ethiopia and Malawi, the Rural Resilience Initiative (R4) has issued payouts to affected farming families. We are also tracking food prices, market access, food quality, concentrating on supply chain efficiency, and working with partners to spread climate and weather information in easily accessible language.

The fact remains that El Niño is threatening to reverse decades of development by weakening communities’ capacity to absorb and adapt to climate change. Unless policies focus on strengthening this capacity, El Niño’s effects will reverberate through generations. This is why WFP puts resilience-building at the heart of its interventions. In Zimbabwe, to quality for food or cash assistance, people must undergo training in climate-smart agricultural techniques, such as water-harvesting. In Ethiopia (again), WFP supports the government’s safety net programmes by paying members of chronically food-insecure households to build infrastructure projects or rehabilitate damaged environments Such public works constitute lasting investments in the future.

El Niño’s force may vary, but it will not go away. It is up to us to ensure that every time it returns, it finds us better equipped, more resilient, readier to shrug off its negative fallout.