Ethiopian herder
An Ethiopian herder leads his camels in the Afar desert as he returns to the Tigray highlands on March 12, 2007. Reuters/Radu Sigheti

The World Health Organization said Monday it had deployed an emergency response team to help Ethiopia cope with its worst drought in decades due to El Niño. Anticipating a surge in health risks, the United Nations public health arm is mobilizing drugs, equipment and human resources to support the Ethiopian Health Ministry and its partners coordinating the health sector response across the East African nation.

“The food security emergency is coming against a background of multiple ongoing epidemics in the country. This creates an additional burden for people’s health as well as the health system as malnutrition, especially in children, predisposes them to more severe infectious disease, which can kill quickly,” Dr. Michelle Gayer, interim director of WHO's Emergency Risk Management & Humanitarian Response Department, said in a statement Monday.

Weather agencies worldwide have said the current El Niño, a warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, may become the strongest on record. The climate system impacts rainfall patterns and temperatures around the world but most intensely in the tropical regions of Africa, the Asia-Pacific and Latin America.

The Ethiopian government announced Monday that 10.1 million people, including 5.75 million children, will face critical food shortages in the coming year as a result of the worsening food crisis. Some 400,000 children are also at risk of developing acute malnutrition in 2016, which can lead to stunting as well as physical and mental delays in development, according to international charity Save the Children.

"The worst drought in Ethiopia for 50 years is happening right now, with the overall emergency response estimated to cost $1.4 billion," John Graham, Save the Children's country director in Ethiopia, said in a statement Monday. "We simply cannot sit back and wait until the situation has reached crisis point this time.”

Dagahely refugee camp
Refugee children walk past emaciated cattle in the outskirts of the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaad, Kenya, on July 23, 2011. A La Niña-linked drought plagued the Horn of Africa region from 2011 to mid-2012 and led to dire food insecurity, causing vulnerable populations to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Ethiopia, which relies heavily on agriculture, has seen two poor growing seasons this year because of delayed rains attributed to El Niño. The situation is expected to worsen over the next eight months and it could take over a year for the drought-stricken country to recover.

The waxing and waning of rainfall across sub-Saharan Africa in recent years has been attributed to both El Niño and La Niña, the cooler counterpart of El Niño that produces opposite climate variations as part of the broader El Niño-Southern Oscillation. While some areas receive excess rains, others receive none, leading to floods, droughts, famine and illness.

The El Niño of 1997-1998 was the worst in modern records. Its effects killed 2,000 people and were linked to famine that struck populations in Ethiopia. Some rural communities in Ethiopia are still recovering from previous systems. A La Niña-linked drought plagued the entire East Africa region from 2011 to mid-2012 and led to dire food insecurity that threatened the livelihood of 9.5 million people. A 2012 report combining U.N. data on the cost of providing life-saving support with evidence on the economic impact of drought found that an early response could save an estimated $8 million each day.