In some areas of Central American and Caribbean countries, farmers have been counting their losses as they harvest crops affected by dry weather and high temperatures. In South America, fields mostly in the coastal areas have been flooded by unusually heavy rains with consequent damage to crops and infrastructure. Both the severe dry weather and floods have been linked to the El Niño phenomenon - a warming of surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean off the Peruvian coast that affects atmospheric circulation worldwide (see Box).
El Niño has been linked with drought not just in parts of Latin America but in southeastern Africa, South Asia, Indonesia and Australia. It has also been associated with steep declines in fish stocks, including the 1972 collapse of the world's largest fishery, the Peruvian anchoveta. The 1982/83 El Niño, the strongest this century, is estimated to have caused more than US$10 billion in weather-related damage worldwide. According to all indicators, the El Niño now forming promises to be just as severe.
The governments of several Latin American countries have declared a state of emergency that would allow the adoption of necessary measures to help mitigate the potential damage of El Niño on crop production. Some countries in Central America, particularly Costa Rica, have been affected by heavy rains and flooding, while others, by contrast, have reported unusually high temperatures, dry weather and localized crop losses. The impact of El Niño has been felt as far away as eastern and southern Australia, where months of dry hot weather have damaged prospects for winter crops and caused a steep drop in milk yields. (see FAO Dairy Outlook)
The current El Niño is among the strongest ever recorded at this time of the year, according to the authors of the new FAO note "An El Niño - Southern Oscillation Primer". Most available indicators point to its culmination before the end of the year.
Special Report focuses on effects of El Niño in Latin America
Abnormally high sea surface temperatures have been observed over wide areas of the Pacific since March of this year, according to a recent Special Report released by the FAO Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS). The system has been closely monitoring the effects of weather irregularities attributed to El Niño on crops over the past few months and studying the potential impact on the food supply situation in various parts of the world. The first report in a regional series focuses on El Niño's impact on crop production in Latin America, perhaps the region most vulnerable to the impact of El Niño.
"The overall impact of El Niño on crops in Latin America is currently not alarming", according to the Special Report. It stressed that no immediate association between El Niño and agricultural production changes could be made at this time, although the situation in Central America should be closely watched as the subregion's short-season crops are most vulnerable to drastic weather variations.
So far, this year's warmer weather and early onset of the dry period have resulted in reductions in main season grain crops in some areas of Central America. The most intense impact is expected from December to March, which coincides with the lean season for grains. Weather irregularities at that time, however, could affect the coffee crop - an important source of foreign exchange - which will be at the critical flowering stage.
Meanwhile, in South America, the strongest impact of El Niño is also expected towards the end of the year, coinciding with the planting of the 1998 main season cereal crops and harvesting of the 1997 wheat crops in the southern parts of the subregion. In view of the heavy damages sustained in the 1982/83 El Niño and current indicators pointing to an even stronger event this year, some South American countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, have declared states of emergency in areas likely to be affected by extreme climatic conditions. The Government of Peru has already set aside US$19 million in emergency aid to cope with potential disaster. Emergency funds have been allocated for public works to reinforce agricultural infrastructure, such as cleaning and fixing irrigation canals, controlling water reservoirs and strengthening bridges, should the worst-case scenario occur.
The consequences of El Niño are expected to be felt in many other parts of the world as well over the coming year. The risk of serious drought is expected to increase in Australia, India, northeast Brazil and southern Africa, as is the number of forest fires in Indonesia.
Concern in Australia is high over El Niño-related dry conditions experienced in many parts of the country since the start of the year, with a consequent fall in milk yields. According to the latest FAO Dairy Outlook, milk production was down as much as 18 percent in some areas, and forecasts indicate that poor rainfall conditions are likely to persist over most of Queensland and even become more pronounced later in the year. In 1983, thousands of head of livestock in Australia were destroyed because there was no grain feed for them to eat.
Primer stresses the need for long-term solutions
"It would be too narrow an approach to develop a strategy that would deal only with reacting against El Niño," warns the FAO note. "Current discussions about how to react to El Niño are useful only if they lead to long-term solutions." The report stresses the need to develop response mechanisms at different levels, from national to local, to react to weather forecasts up to 24 hours or one week in advance as well as to longer term climatic forecasts. Whether the extreme factor is the result of El Niño or any other cause is not really relevant.
According to the report, the proper strategy would incorporate the following :