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What El Niño teaches us about climate resilience

Francis Ghesquiere's picture
It was recorded by the Spanish conquistadors, and triggered famines that have been linked to China’s 1901 Boxer Rebellion and even the French revolution.

Named by Peruvian fishermen because of its tendency to appear around Christmastime, El Niño is the planet’s most large-scale and recurring mode of climate variability. Every 2-7 years, a slackening of trade winds that push sun-warmed water across the Pacific contributes to a rise in water temperature across large parts of the ocean. As the heat rises, a global pattern of weather changes ensues, triggering heat waves in many tropical regions and extreme drought or rainfall in others.

The fact that we are undergoing a major El Niño event should cause major concern and requires mobilization now. Already, eight provinces in the Philippines are in a state of emergency due to drought; rice farmers in Vietnam and Thailand have left fields unplanted due to weak rains; and 42,000 people have been displaced by floods in Somalia.

And this is before the event reaches its peak. Meteorologists see a 95% chance of the El Niño lasting into 2016, with its most extreme effects arriving between now and March. Coastal regions of Latin America are braced for major floods; India is dealing with a 14% deficit in the recent monsoon rains; and poor rainfalls could add to insecurity in several of Africa’s fragile states. Indeed, Berkeley Professor Soloman Hsiang has used historical data to demonstrate that the likelihood of new conflict outbreaks in tropical regions doubles from 3% to 6% in an El Niño year.

But despite its thousand-year history, the devastation associated with El Niño is not inevitable. Progress made by many other countries since the last major event, in 1997-98, shows that we can get a grip on its effect – and others caused by climate trends.

Making the risky business of agriculture ‘climate-smart’

Vikas Choudhary's picture

Farmers harvest crops in Madagascar.

Agriculture is an inherently risky business.  From natural disasters and erratic rainfall to pests, few other sectors are as exposed or as vulnerable to shocks.
Climate change is a source of significant risks for agricultural and food systems: Climate projections suggest that average growing conditions will shift and there will be more uncertainty in predicting climate and weather conditions. More concretely, these impacts will translate into an overall warming trend, an increasingly erratic distribution of precipitation, more frequent and more devastating extreme weather events, and spatial shifts in the occurrence of pests and diseases. These impacts can cause production losses which lead to market volatility and in some cases, reactionary shifts in policies and regulations. 

Introducing our new Sustainable Communities blog series

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
Making sure that villages, cities, but also countries and societies at large can grow in a sustainable way will be key to achieving the World Bank’s twin goals of eliminating poverty and boosting shared prosperity. This new blog series on “Sustainable Communities” will provide a platform for our experts to explore the multiple aspects of sustainability – environmental, social, economic, and discuss what concrete solutions can be implemented to pave the way for a brighter, more sustainable future.

Mauritania’s race against the rising sea

Nathalie Abu-Ata's picture
Photo by Nathalie Abu-Ata / World Bank

“If we don’t take action now…the city of Nouakchott will soon be underwater.” These words, spoken by Mauritania’s Minister on Environment and Sustainable Development Amedi Camara, during a recent workshop in the country’s capital city, echoed a recurrent theme during our visits with Mauritanian authorities and local communities alike. They have stuck with me since.

Floods are not a new phenomenon for Nouakchott. A busy port city on Africa’s west coast, Nouakchott is mostly below sea level and is particularly vulnerable to rising groundwater levels, seawater intrusions, porous soils, sand extractions, and heavy rains in low-lying areas. Poorly planned port infrastructure has dramatically altered the dynamic and flow of sediments along the coast leading to substantial erosion in the city’s south (up to 25 meters annually in some years).

To make matters worse, severe and sometimes deadly floods have struck the city in recent decades. Extreme weather and human interventions have played a significant role in making the capital, with one-third of the population, or 1 million people, increasingly vulnerable to floods. 

Paying it forward in a digital age: A global community committed to a mapped world

Alanna Simpson's picture
Specialists in Sri Lanka receive training on the InaSafe risk assessment platform. © World Bank
Specialists in Sri Lanka receive training on the InaSafe risk assessment platform. © World Bank

​​When I first heard about OpenStreetMap (OSM) – the so called Wikipedia of maps, built by volunteers around the world – I was skeptical of its ability to scale, usability in decision making, and ultimate longevity among new ideas conceived in the digital age. Years later, having working on many disaster risk management initiatives across the globe, I can say that I am a passionate advocate for the power of this community. And I continue to be struck by the power of one small initiative like OSM that brings together people across cultures and countries to save lives. It is more than a technology or a dataset, it’s a global community of individuals committed to making a difference.

Building disaster resilience: The road from Sendai

Francis Ghesquiere's picture
Barely a month has passed since the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction  where the international community agreed on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which will guide global efforts to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risk through 2030. As leaders from our 188 member countries arrive in Washington, D.C., this week for the 2015 Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, we have an excellent opportunity to take stock of how to best achieve the ambitious goals set forth in Sendai.

Preparing for disasters saves lives and money

Jim Yong Kim's picture
Also available in: Español | Français | العربية
Tropical Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 storm, ripped through the island nation of Vanuatu on March 13 and 14. © UNICEF
Tropical Cyclone Pam hit the island nation of Vanuatu on March 13-14. © UNICEF

SENDAI, Japan Without better preparation for disasters – whether they be earthquakes and tidal waves, extreme weather events, or future pandemics – we put lives and economies at risk. We also have no chance to be the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty.
Just a few days ago, the world was again reminded of our vulnerability to disasters, after Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall, devastated the islands of Vanuatu. Some reports found that as much as 90 percent of the housing in Port Vila was badly damaged.  When the cyclone hit, I was in Sendai for the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which took place only a few days after the fourth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. That quake and subsequent tsunami tragically resulted in more than 15,000 deaths and caused an estimated $300 billion in damage.

Translating words into action: We must build resilience into development

Rachel Kyte's picture
Translating Words into Action

World Bank Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change Rachel Kyte speaks from the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction underway in Sendai, Japan, about the need for greater investment in resilience. As the conference was taking place, a Category 5 cyclone swept across Vanuatu, leaving destruction in its wake.

The disaster reality that must change

Rachel Kyte's picture
Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu on March 15, 2015. Satellite image via NASA
Cyclone Pam, March 13, 2015. Satellite image via NASA

It’s one of the harsh realities of today. 

Just as representatives from around the globe began to gather in Sendai, Japan, for an international disaster risk conference, authorities in Vanuatu were issuing evacuation alerts with Cyclone Pam intent on a destructive path towards the Pacific island nation.

On the eve of the official opening of the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, three cyclones – including the ferocious Cyclone Pam – were casting a menacing shadow over the Asia Pacific region.

It underscores a simple point. The threats posed by natural disasters are on the rise.

How would your country recover from disaster?

Raja Rehan Arshad's picture

Three days after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake jolted Northern Pakistan, I boarded a helicopter to assist the local government in surveying the incredible destruction of homes and lives. Entire villages had been wiped out, and the area’s mountainous terrain made rescue operations all but impossible in many places. I wondered to myself how my country – or any country – could truly recover from a disaster as earth-shattering as this.  

That concern turned to anxiety as I looked up to see black storm clouds form ahead.  Helicopters that had been in front of us were now turning around. Surely we would turn back, too, but the pilot insisted his skills and experience would carry us through the storm. They did, and that 2005 reconstruction effort in Pakistan became a defining moment in my understanding of recovery.

Over the course of the next decade of disaster and response, I and many others working in this space, came to understand that damage and needs assessments alone are not enough to address recovery and reconstruction. Without an overall recovery strategy and the right institutions to carry it forward, a country’s post-disaster efforts are all too often ad hoc and improvised.
We realized that recovery was something to plan for before disasters strike.