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What El Niño teaches us about climate resilience

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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.

So how can we respond adequately to a global climate crisis? Consider the 1997-98 event, which caused $35 billion of damages, cost 30,000 lives and made El Niño a household name.
In Southeast Asia, countries faced especially strong impacts and were ill-prepared due to the double-whammy they faced that year: a global financial shock that affected their currencies and finance, and a global environmental shock that affected forests, farms, water and health. At the time, Indonesia struggled to mobilize firefighters to douse the intense forest fires that spread haze over neighboring countries. Kenya, Uganda and Peru turned to the World Bank for emergency financing after bridges, farms and roads were washed away.
  This year’s toll may even exceed that of 1997-98. But since then, many countries have built a greatly strengthened disaster management toolkit with which to respond:
  • Since 2006, twelve countries including the Philippines and Peru have worked with the World Bank to secure a line of credit, known as a Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option, that can disburse large-scale funds immediately when a state of emergency is declared.
  • Ethiopia and Kenya have built scalable safety nets that allow rapid, targeted payments to households when lives are threatened.
  • Peru’s national El Niño agency is coordinating across government, informing citizens of the risks and translating the science of weather prediction into clear language that spurs action.
El Niño has taken place throughout history. But the responses – including prediction, risk reduction, social and financial safety nets, and strong disaster agencies – are well known, and since 1997-98 we have come far towards getting these essentials in place. Next week I will join African disaster risk managers at the Understanding Risk Conference to discuss how we can collaborate to scale up these responses further and faster.

Responding to El Niño is particularly important because the effects it generates – such as heatwaves and precipitation extremes – will increasingly become the ‘new normal’ in a world shaped by climate change.

Much more needs to be done in coming months, not least to prepare for the flooding and infectious diseases that typically follow the year after a peak El Niño.

But if we redouble our efforts to bring disaster risk management to scale, it will prepare us to tackle future El Niño events better – as well as to handle other climate-driven extremes that are equally damaging but less predictable.


Francis Ghesquiere

Practice Manager, Water, Eastern and Southern Africa, World Bank

Nick Jones

Data Scientist, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR)

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