25 August 1997



A large-scale abnormal warming of the sea-surface of South American Pacific Ocean has been observed since March 1997. The phenomenon is referred to as El Niño and appears every 2 to 7 years, with different intensity and duration. The current El Niño appears to be exceptional in that it is the strongest ever recorded at this time of the year. Important changes in temperatures and precipitation patterns are often noticed during El Niño, having a positive or negative impact on agriculture and water resources. The overall changes in the ocean surface temperatures caused by El Niño also affect the natural conditions of marine ecosystems. It should be stressed, however, that no immediate association can be established between El Niño and agricultural production changes.

The previous strongest El Niño event, in 1982/83, resulted in severe flooding and drought in several parts of the world, as well as the decline of a number of fish stocks, and reportedly caused over U.S.$ 10 billion in weather-related damages. While it is difficult to forecast the impact of El Niño in specific areas, it is necessary to follow its development and take preventive action against its possible negative impact on agriculture.

Over the past few months, FAOís Global Information and Early Warning System has been closely monitoring the effects on crops of weather anomolies, attributed to El Niño, and their potential impact on the food supply situation in various parts of the world. The System plans to issue periodic reports on various sub-regions as necessary.

The present report focuses on Latin America, one of the most vulnerable regions to the El Niño phenomenon, having experienced severe crop losses and damage to infrastructure during the 1982/83 warm event. The overall impact of El Niño on crops in Latin America is currently not alarming. However, the situation in Central America gives cause for concern, as the short-season crops grown in the sub-region are more vulnerable to drastic weather variations.

The situation by sub-region is as follows:


In Central America, where the main season grain crops are planted from May to June and harvested from August to September, this yearís warmer and early onset of the dry period resulted in reductions of the area planted in parts and is adversely affecting the development of the crops in the ground.

In Honduras, unseasonable high temperatures and dry weather are reported since mid-July in central and, particularly, southern areas of the country, affecting the main season maize, sorghum and bean crops. Important localized crop losses are reported in the depressed Choluteca and Valle regions, and

the zones around Francisco Morazan, El Paraiso and La Paz regions. The Government has announced an emergency assistance plan for the most affected agricultural areas. In El Salvador, below-normal and irregularly distributed rains are reported since end-June from all parts of the country. Damage to the first season crops, particularly maize, is being reported in some areas of the east, namely Morazan, San Miguel, Usultan and La Union. Overall, official forecasts point to a decline of 15 percent in production of the main maize crop from last yearís good level. In Guatemala, insufficient precipitation during the season in southwest, southeast and central parts, have had a negative effect on crops, mainly maize. In Nicaragua, unseasonable dry weather from late June is likely to result in yield reductions of the first season cereal crops. Irregularly distributed rains had also been previously reported. In the Dominican Republic, well below average precipitation in July has reduced water reservoir levels for planting of the secondary irrigated rice crop. Dry weather has also affected minor rainfed maize and sorghum, and other foodcrops. In Costa Rica and Panama, as well as in Mexico, the largest producer of the sub-region, no critical anomalies in weather conditions with consequent damage on crops have been reported so far. A detailed assessment of the effect on crops of this yearís weather anomolies in different countries is currently under preparation.

The most intense impact of El Niño is expected from December to March which would coincide with the sub-regionís lean season for grains, as crops of the secondary season (from late August to December) will be mostly harvested. However, weather anomalies may affect the important foreign exchange earning coffee crop which will be at a critical flowering stage. Governments of the region are considering contingency plans to mitigate the impact of a potential worsening of dry weather conditions.


Precipitation and temperature anomolies are being experienced in several parts of the sub-region, but adverse impacts on crops have been localized so far.

In southern countries of the sub-region, where planting of the 1997/98 wheat crop is completed or about to be completed, above average rains in the past months have generally benefited soil conditions for planting and the emergence of the crop. However, in Argentina, where planting of wheat lasts until September, heavy rains have delayed sowing operations in parts. In Chile, despite floods in northern and central parts that resulted in infrastructure and housing losses, the above-average precipitation of early June improved soil conditions following a prolonged dry spell. In Brazil and Uruguay abundant rains have kept adequate soil moisture for the wheat crop.

The impact of El Niño in the southern countries is expected towards the end of the year, when the wheat crops will be harvested and planting of the 1997/98 coarse grain crop (scheduled to start from September/October) will be near completion. Should forecasts of above-normal rains in the sub-region materialize, reductions of wheat yields, as well as reductions in the area planted to coarse grains, would occur.

In the Andean countries, well above average temperatures and floods have been registered in the past months in some areas. In general, these weather anomalies did not affect the 1997 main season cereal crops as the bulk of the harvest was already completed by June. However, in eastern parts of Bolivia (Santa Cruz Department), where a second winter crop is planted from May, excessive rains in June, followed by dry weather in July, have resulted in reductions in the area planted to sorghum and soybeans. In Peru, the rise in temperatures in the irrigated coastal areas has accelerated the development of fruits and vegetables, increasing water supply requirements. In Ecuador, heavy rains and floods in late June in coastal areas resulted in localised damages to banana, sugar and the secondary rice crops. Localized floods have also affected crops in Venezuela.

In the sub-region, the potentially strongest impact of El Niño, will coincide with the planting of the 1998 main season cereal crops which may be affected by floods in northern areas and dry weather in southern parts. In view of the heavy damages to agriculture experienced in the previous strongest El Niño in 1982/83 and current indicators pointing to an even stronger event this year, the Governments of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador have declared states of emergency in areas likely to be affected by extreme climatic conditions. Contingency and strategic planning to cope with an eventual emergency are being formulated. Emergency funds have been allocated for public works to reinforce agricultural infrastructure, such as cleaning and fixing of irrigation canals, control of water reservoirs, strengthening of bridges, repair of hinterland roads, that should help mitigate an eventual negative impact.
This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO Secretariat with information from official and unofficial sources and is for official use only. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact Mr. Abdur Rashid, Chief, ESCG, FAO, (Telex 610181 FAO I; Fax: 0039-6-5705-4495, E-Mail (INTERNET): GIEWS1@FAO.ORG) for further information if required. 

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