Researching the impacts of El Niño

The 2015-16 El Niño episode caused drought across large parts of eastern, southern, and central Ethiopia.

Project team members


  • Felicity Lequesne

Failed belg and delayed/erratic kiremt rains caused acute and widespread crop failure, asset depletion, and food insecurity. Children were amongst the most vulnerable to the 2015-16 El Niño drought, and their well-being was affected across numerous indicators. The episode was neither unfamiliar, nor unpredictable, being a severe iteration of a natural climatic phenomenon affecting Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.

UNICEF Ethiopia commissioned research entitled ‘Generation El Niño: Long-Term Impact on Children’s Well-being’ to consider the longer-term impacts of the 2015/16 drought. The research is intended to build the evidence base on the impacts that droughts have on child well-being, particularly with a view to informing policy and programming.


Ethiopia experiences significant variability in rainfall, and research suggests that the country is experiencing warming trends driven by climate change, pointing towards a likelihood of recurrent drought in future decades. Droughts badly afflict certain parts of the country where populations are dependent on rain-fed agriculture and/or pastoralist ways of life. Persistent drought episodes place millions of children at risk in terms of their long-term well-being and future development.

A number of rapid assessments have been undertaken of the 2015/16 drought response, as well as of the immediate impacts of the drought on children. However, until now there has not been a study that has focused explicitly on how the drought is likely to impact on children in a holistic sense and with a long-term perspective.

Whilst acknowledging the challenges of measuring long-term impacts, and accurately attributing them to the 2015/16 El Niño drought, this study seeks to address evidence gaps by exploring the relationship between the immediate impacts of the drought on children, the coping strategies adopted by households in response to those impacts, and – along with broader external factors and interventions – how these are likely to influence long-term well-being.

Our approach

The research we undertook (with HESPI) was framed by an approach to understanding children’s well-being that is embedded in the capabilities approach, as well as linking to the concept of resilience. The study synthesises data captured across five regions of Ethiopia (Afar, Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR, and Tigray).

The data were collected via a series of household case studies and focus group discussions with adults and children (aged between seven and 18), as well as key informant interviews at community, regional, and federal levels. Primary data were complemented by secondary literature analysis (including that on adaptation, resilience, and drought-related impacts). This provided both a wide perspective across households and a deeper focus on the intra-household dynamics that mediated the effects of the El Niño event on children’s well-being. This enabled the triangulation of different experiences to explore the conditions, possibilities, and activities that influence well-being for children, whilst also considering children as important social actors themselves.


The recommendations emerging from the research contribute to ensuring that policies and programmes place children on positive, long-term development trajectories, by taking account of children’s perspectives and being integrated within a clear strategic framework of resilience building that provides a shared reference point for humanitarian and development efforts.

Further, the research provides valuable evidence to support the need to bridge the division between development and humanitarian activities within institutions and policies, to improve coordination and efficiency. A move in this direction can provide a context for transformative interventions that save lives and – fundamentally – build the conditions for sustained well-being and resilience to future crises.


You can read the final report on UNICEF's website, or download it from the download buttons above.


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