Farmers brace for extreme weather conditions as El Niño effect hits Latin America and Australia

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). 

Worldwide climatic impacts of warm El Niño events. On the left, impacts during the northern hemisphere winter (October to March) and, on the right, impacts during April to September. The impacts do not necessarily occur at the same time as the warming of the Pacific. D indicates drought, R indicates unusually high rainfall (not necessarily unusually intense rainfall) and W indicates abnormally warm periods.  
The extreme climatic conditions triggered by El Niño can be beneficial. For example, hurricanes in the Atlantic are believed to be suppressed, and semi-arid areas welcome "flooding" that irrigates crops and replenishes water reservoirs. But the impact on agriculture, fisheries and food security is often disastrous. 

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 : 

  • national meteorological services should improve their capability to issue regional seasonal forecasts for main agricultural areas, including realistic and reliable probabilities of occurrence; 
  • national agricultural research institutes should develop decision or simulation tools to evaluate the impact of El Niño on agricultural systems and infrastructure so that proper management decisions, incorporating economic considerations, can be taken; 
  • climate/weather impact on agriculture should be seen as much in terms of opportunities as in terms of loss mitigation. 
22 September 1997 

Related links: 

El Niño: the phenomenon

El Niño (Spanish for Christ Child) is the name given by Peruvian fisherfolk to the warming of the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean that tends to occur around Christmas. A natural event that recurs in more or less regular cycles (on average every four to five years), El Niño affects the Pacific from Peru to Indonesia. The local warming of the world's largest ocean also has repercussions for global atmospheric circulation of winds and waters.

Although some of its effects may be beneficial, the phenomenon is better known for the havoc it can wreak: harvests can be lost, fishery yields reduced and oceanic ecosystems endangered, threatening food security in many regions. The disturbance can produce droughts in southern Africa, parts of India, Indonesia, Australia and certain regions of the Americas, floods in Kenya, Argentina and the United States, erratic monsoons in South Asia and extremely high temperatures in Japan and some regions of Canada.

Although the warming of the waters may last from 12 months to five years, a time lag between the phenomenon itself and many of its most important climatic consequences means that repercussions are long term. The intense El Niño of 1982/83 brought devastation to more than 15 countries.

A growing number of experts have criticized press coverage and interpretation of scientific predictions about the current El Niño as scaremongering. Said FAO agrometeorologist René Gommes, "It is important not to minimize risks but also to remember that there have been El Niños without any catastrophes and catastrophes without any El Niños". Back to article 


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