El Niño still affecting crop production in Latin America

Latin American farmers and governments continue to battle with extreme weather linked to the El Niño phenomenon, according to a Special Report issued in February by FAO's Global and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS). El Niño is the name given to the periodic warming of the waters of the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Peru, which affects climate patterns worldwide.

Catastrophic floods have damaged crops, infrastructure and property in many parts of Latin America, while other areas have suffered from severe drought. Several governments have declared a state of national emergency and appealed for international assistance. The report warns that countries in the region will probably need to import significantly more grain in 1997-98 than the 30 million tonnes of the previous crop year.


The Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) gives an indication of the strength of an El Niño. The SOI measures the departure from normal conditions (zero value) of the difference in atmospheric pressure between Tahiti and Darwin, Australia. Large negative values are associated with El Niño events. SOI figures reveal that the current El Niño hit an unusually high and early peak between March and June of 1997 but has generally been following the same pattern as the strong El Niño of 1982-83.

Subsistence and cash crops have been affected across the region. In Central America, drought has been the main problem linked to El Niño. Harvests of rice, maize, coffee, tobacco, bananas, beans, cassava and many other foodstuffs throughout Central America have been severely reduced by lack of rain. There are fears that planting of the first season cereal crops - due to start in most countries in March - will also be reduced. The livestock sector has also been severely affected by drought because of damage to pastureland.

Further south, across much of South America, the problem has not been too little rain but too much. Although heavy rains are expected to lead to bumper crops in Argentina, floods are wreaking havoc in several other countries. At the same time, drought is also taking its toll in northwestern and central areas of the subregion.

Surface water temperatures in the current El Niño reached an exceptional peak in June to August 1997, but fell at the end of the year, leading some people to hope that it was coming to an end. But climate experts say that it now appears to be gathering strength again. Various El Niño indices remained stable in February at January's high levels, which were, however, slightly lower than the 1982-83 record.

"It is very difficult to say exactly how the situation will continue developing this time," said FAO agrometeorologist René Gommes. "Although not all the expected effects have materialized - the much feared drought in southern Africa has still not started - farmers and governments should continue to prepare for the climate extremes associated with El Niño."

11 March 1998

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