Update on FAO's activities in relation to the 1997/98 El Niño

July 1998

Crop and Food Supply Monitoring
Emergency Agricultural Rehabilitation
Impact on Livestock
Impact on Forests and Natural Vegetation
Impact on Fisheries



Since mid-1997 FAO has been intensively monitoring and alerting the international community of the potential impact on agriculture, forestry and fisheries of weather anomalies around the world which are believed to be affected by the current El Niño phenomenon. In several parts of the world severe weather disturbances have already had far reaching repercussions on crop production and national food supply situation, livestock, fish production and forestry (especially in regard to the occurrence and extent of forest fires).

FAO has undertaken a number of measures to ensure that the international community is kept continually informed of developments related to El Niño and the possible impact it could have on global, national and household food security. The Organization works in close collaboration with governments, donors, NGOs and other humanitarian agencies to alleviate the adverse effects of weather anomalies associated with El Niño.


FAO continues to be actively involved in helping countries to prepare for and respond to the adverse impact of El Niño. In a number of countries the Organisation has increased awareness among Governments of weather hazards to allow more location specific impact scenarios to be developed. It has also strengthened ongoing development activities that have an additional preventative relevance in the light of current and future weather anomalies and El Niño. Examples of measures promoted by FAO include:

  • support to well construction and small-scale irrigation development programmes in Southern Africa and Central America;
  • development of drought and cyclone-resistant cropping patterns and farming and fishing practices for South Asia, the Sahel, eastern and southern Africa and the Caribbean;
  • support for the preparation of a disaster preparedness strategy for the member countries of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Eastern Africa;
  • provision of information and direct assistance to member countries on appropriate forestry policy and planning, forest management and land use decision making, environmentally sound logging, fire control, etc.;
  • support to flood prevention through integrated watershed development programmes in eroded, mountainous regions, and support for the design and management of strategic food security reserves.

Specific country, regional and global level activities include:

Crop and Food Supply Monitoring

Since the onset of the current El Niño, FAO through its Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS), has intensified the monitoring of weather developments and crop prospects in all parts of the world. The System has issued several special reports on the impact of El Niño on crop production in Latin America, Asia and Africa. FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Missions were fielded in March 1998 to Indonesia, which has been seriously affected by drought, in April 1998 to Angola, Mozambique and Zambia, in June to DPR Korea and in early July to Tanzania, where crop losses were caused by weather anomalies.

The Director-General of FAO approved jointly with the Executive Director of WFP an Emergency Operation for US$ 88 million for 4.6 million most affected people in Indonesia and in June 1998 an Emergency Operation for the Great Lakes region for US$ 104 million for 1.4 million people affected by civil strife and the adverse effects of El Niño. In December 1997, an Emergency Operation for Central America for US$ 9.4 million was approved for farmers and their families affected by El Niño in five countries (Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama).

For Central America, FAO assisted the Regional Unit for Technical Assistance (RUTA) in the evaluation of crop losses caused by El Niño in the sub-region.

Emergency Agricultural Rehabilitation

Since the onset of El Niño induced disasters, FAO's Special Relief Operations Service (TCOR) has fielded a number of missions to countries affected by serious weather anomalies in Central America, Eastern Africa, Asia and the Pacific Rim, to assess needs for essential agricultural inputs to restore production as well as immediate rehabilitation and preparedness interventions.

For the period April 1997-April 1998 floods were reported in 41 countries, drought/dry spell in 22 countries and major forest fires in two countries (Indonesia and Brazil). In all cases FAO liaised with its country offices to obtain necessary assessment of situation and needs. The most recent assessment of the need was carried out in Indonesia where FAO estimated emergency input requirements at US$18 million. Donors were approached for funding of immediate remedial measures. Emergency interventions following El Niño induced disasters are currently being carried out in several countries.

Impact on Livestock

El Niño-related drought has had a considerable impact in Asia, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines, which may trigger above normal livestock slaughter, with depressing effects on prices. Reduced output of feed grains due to drought, coupled with severe foreign exchange constraints, might also result in a downsizing of the intensive poultry and pig industries.

Apart from direct livestock losses due to heavy, unseasonable and heavy rainfall and floods attributed to the current El Niño in Eastern Africa (notably Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia), they also provided ideal conditions for breeding of insect vectors of animal and human diseases. The most serious consequences of this has been an epidemic of Rift Valley Fever (RVF) across most parts of Kenya and Somalia, which has resulted in extensive death and illness. Large parts of neighbouring Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, southern Sudan and southern Ethiopia also remain at serious risk of the epidemic. Livestock disease and loss, will inevitably result in a fall in food security and the welfare and incomes of large numbers of people dependent on livestock and livestock products. In addition, direct trade will also be affected as some important markets have placed embargoes on these products due to fears of RVF infection.

Impact on Forests and Natural Vegetation

One of the greatest El Niño-related threats to forests and natural vegetation is the increased risk of wildfires, due to drought conditions. Drought raises the flammability of vegetation and creates other conditions for the spread of fires, leading to an increased number of fires, area burned and intensity of burning.

Forest fires in critical watershed areas may have significant effect upon agricultural production on lands downstream. Given the link between forests and food security, the increased risk of wildfires and resulting forest damage associated with El Niño has a potential impact upon national and household food security.

Forest fires have a direct effect on the emission of greenhouse gas by increasing levels in the atmosphere of CO2, thus contributiong to global warming. Fires may also reduce biological diversity, destroy wood and other forest commodities and emit smoke harmful to human health and inhibiting air traffic, etc.

Specific FAO activities on the sector include:

  • Monitoring the global situation with respect to forest fires
  • Preparation of a Consultation on Public Policies Affecting Forest Fires, scheduled for October 1998 at FAO, Rome. Agenda of the Consultation will include: Four regional studies analyzing the main socio-political causes of forest fires and on measures/actions required to prevent and reduce their impacts, prepared by identified Resource Persons, in collaboration with experts from the regions concerned. Regions proposed to be covered: the Americas/Caribbean; Asia/Pacific; Africa; the Mediterranean);
  • A study to identify better means to integrate national and global policies for fire prevention i.e. early warning about adverse weather patterns such as El Niño that have direct implication on prevailing environmental conditions which exacerbate fires;
  • Collaboration with UNEP and other international agencies concerned with emergency response to forest fires;
  • Long-standing provision of technical information on training on forest fire prevention and control.

Impact on Fisheries

The area off western South America is one of the major upwelling regions of the globe, producing 12 to 20 percent of world total fish landings. This is one of the areas that have been most severely affected by the 1997-98 El Niño. Rising coastal sea temperatures and weakening in the upwelling process has caused severe decline in biomass and total production of small shoaling pelagics, which are otherwise readily available in the area, particularly off Ecuador, Peru and Chile. This has caused and is still causing large loses to the fisheries sectors in the area, as well as a worldwide shortage of fishmeal and fish oil.

Of particular relevance are the impacts of El Niño on the Peruvian anchoveta, which has declined to very low levels off Peru and Chile. Recruitment failure with at least two consecutive year classes missing or much lower than expected, poor somatic growth with an average weight loss of 15-30 percent and a possible increase in fishing and natural mortality are the main direct causes for this decline. Although the current El Niño is reportedly phasing out, the actual recovery of the Peruvian anchoveta might only be noticeable towards the end of the year and during 1999 as it would take some time for the now much diminished anchoveta stocks to build up. It is also worth noting that the pace and extent of this recovery would depend largely on the prevailing environmental conditions and the effectiveness of the fisheries management measures being adopted by the local administrations.

In the same area important sardine stocks were already declining before the onset of the recent events and although slightly warmer than normal conditions are known to favour sardines in this area, prospects of a recovery are likely to have been offset or even deteriorated by the strength of the 1997-98 El Niño. Catches of horse mackerel have also been much lower than in previous years, particularly affecting fishing off Chile. This has been mostly due to an offshore and polarward displacement of existing concentrations. Catches of other small and mid size pelagics and coastal demersals also have been affected throughout the eastern Pacific.

Although the current El Niño has resulted in a reduction in landings of abundant and common fish species and reduced shrimp culture activities due to heavy rain and flooding in some areas, catches of other more tropical pelagic species such as dolphin fish, tropical sharks and tunas have increased or have fluctuated widely in the tropical and subtropical eastern Pacific as stocks were experiencing a polarward displacement during the onset from the El Niño. These effects are expected to retreat more rapidly during the phasing out of the event. Also in some areas the total production of some wild shrimp stocks and shellfishes also increased due to the warmer temperatures.

Other negative effects of El Niño have also been reported for others regions of the world, and of particular relevance are the unprecedented coral reef bleaching in the Indian Ocean and the tropical eastern and western Pacific. This has obvious fisheries and environmental impacts for the areas concern.

FAO continues to monitor the situation on a regional and global basis, and has been in contact with the CPPS (the "Comision Permanente del Pacifico Sur", a regional body covering the SE Pacific, the area most severely hit by El Niño) regarding the possibility of supporting or co-sponsoring an International meeting on current El Niño.


The impact of El Niño on Crop Production in Latin America: GIEWS Special Reports, 25 August and 27 November 1997

The Impact of El Niño and other Weather Anomalies on Crop Production in Asia: GIEWS Special Report, 25 September 1997

Special Features on the impact of El Niño on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in Food Outlook November/December 1997.

The impact of El Niño and other Weather Anomalies on Crop Production in Southern Africa: GIEWS Special Report, 21 November 1997.

El Niño Southern Oscillation Primer (ENSO): by SDRN, FIRM and SADC February 1998.

Heavy rains attributed to El Niño cause extensive crop damage in parts of Eastern Africa: GIEWS Special Report, 5 February 1998.

The continuing impact of El Niño on crop production in Latin America: GIEWS Special Report, 9 February 1998.

Indonesia - Drought-Reduced Harvest Threatens Food Security: GIEWS Special Report, 19 February 1998.

Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Indonesia: FAO/WFP Special Report, 17 April 1998.

Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Angola: FAO/WFP Special Report, 20 May 1998.

Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Zambia: FAO/WFP Special Report, 4 June 1998.

Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Mozambique: FAO/WFP Special Report, 23 June 1998.

Indonesia - Concerns over Food Supply Difficulties Mount as the Effect of Drought and Economic Problems Deepens: GIEWS Special Alert No.284, 7 July 1998


Briefing of Permanent Representatives to FAO: 17 October 1997

FAO press briefing: 5 November 1997

Briefing for FAO Conference Delegates on FAO's activities in relation to forest fires and identification of new directions: 11 November 1997

FAO participation in the Inter Agency Task Force on El Niño convened by IDNDR: 18 November 1997.

First SARCOF meeting held in Zimbabwe, 8-12 September 1997 FAO/WFP meetings with the EU and USAID on contingency planning for El Niño related drought in Southern Africa, 6 December 1997.

FAO also provided invaluable information on the current El Niño phenomenon to the international community through a number of radio and media interviews.

For more information, please contact:
Abdur Rashid, Chief, Global Information and Early Warning Service FAO,
Telex 610181 FAO I; Fax: 0039-6-5705-4495,
E-Mail (INTERNET): [email protected] 

Back to main story


 FAO Home page 


 Search our site 

Comments?: [email protected]