FAO works to lessen impact before and after El Niño strikes


Drought in South Asia: only one of the dramatic effects attributed to the current El Niño

Measurements of sea water temperatures in the Pacific confirm that the 1997-98 El Niño phenomenon is coming to an end. But the effects are still being felt in many of the more than 60 countries that suffered heavy floods or severe drought as a result of weather anomalies caused, at least in part, by the cyclical warming of surface waters off the coast of Peru popularly known as El Niño. And FAO continues to work with many of these countries to restore agricultural production and take steps to reduce the impact of extreme weather in the future.

A report issued by FAO in mid-July details the devastating impact of El Niño-related weather and the wide range of activities that the Organization has undertaken:

  • to keep the world informed about El Niño and its possible effects on global, national and household food security;
  • to assist countries in preparing for and responding to any adverse impact; and
  • to help rehabilitate agricultural sectors after the worst is over.

Between April 1997 and April 1998, the report states, floods were reported in over 40 countries, droughts or dry spells in 22 countries and two countries suffered widespread forest fires. All of these weather anomalies are believed to have been caused to some degree by the El Niño phenomenon.

Since the current El Niño began, FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) has intensified efforts to monitor weather developments and crop prospects throughout the world. Several special reports on the phenomenon's impact on crop production in Latin America, Asia and Africa have been issued.

FAO provides vulnerable countries with technical advice to fortify agricultural systems against El Niño-caused weather anomalies. In South Asia, the Sahel, eastern and southern Africa and the Caribbean, for example, drought and cyclone-resistant cropping patterns and farming and fishing practices have been introduced. In southern Africa and Central America, support has been given to constructing wells and small-scale irrigation systems.

FAO's Special Relief Operations Service (TCOR) sends assessment missions to countries hard-hit by natural catastrophes. The missions evaluate damage to the agricultural sector so that rehabiliation schemes can be put into place promptly. The Organization recently appealed for more than US$18 million to rehabilitate drought and fire-stricken areas in Indonesia, for example.

Last year, Indonesia suffered its worst drought in 50 years. The prolonged dry spell, believed to be triggered by El Niño, withered crops and left forests tinder dry, making it almost impossible to control fires that raged out of control for weeks. The food security situation of the country's rural population remains critical. Currently, 1.5 million families are depending on international assistance as a result of the drought, fires and the ongoing economic crisis in Asia. And the number is expected to climb.

Through its appeal, FAO aims to restart agricultural production in the hardest-hit areas in the country and to strengthen the agricultural sector's defense against similar occurrences in the future. FAO requested funding of emergency activities include providing tools and know-how at the local level to produce ample quantities of high-quality seeds for a number of drought-tolerant and drought-resistant food crop varieties. Fish and poultry breeding stocks will also be built up, providing additional sources of food and income to act as buffers against prolonged drought.

The work to build the defenses of agricultural, forestry and fisheries sectors in countries most vulnerable to weather anomalies cannot begin soon enough. Even as countries struggle to recover from the impact of El Niño, oceanographers and meteorologists are monitoring the likelihood that the reverse weather pattern known as La Niña may follow hard on its heels. Experts say that the first effects of La Niña - which is characterized by an upswelling of cold water in the areas of the Pacific that turn abnormally warm during El Niño - could be felt by the end of 1998. If this happens, it may bring drought to areas still recovering from floods and drown parched fields whose ability to absorb water has been damaged by months without rain.

Update on FAO's response to the current El Niño, July 1998

27 July 1998

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