|El Niño and La Niña -- the Pacific’s deadly duo
|Continued from previous page
|Floods and droughts afflict Africa
El Niño may be born from the waters of the Pacific, but its global effect on precipitation and
temperature anomalies severely threatens Africa’s agrarian regions and subsistence
farmers. And the droughts and floods it brings can be deadly for the continent’s millions
of nomads, refugees and displaced people.
Southern Africa has suffered some of its worst droughts and subsequent famines during
El Niño episodes. Drought related to the 1982-83 El Niño cost nearly one billion dollars in
direct damages, with another US$ 350 million spent on famine relief. (1983 prices).
In 1991-92, El Niño drought over much of southern and eastern Africa threatened 30 million
people with malnutrition. Kenya was forced to import grain for the first time in nearly a
decade and southern African grain imports increased overall from two million to seven
million tones. The economic loss to Africa’s agricultural sector was estimated at a
staggering US$7 billion (1992 prices) -- twenty times the value of 1993 World bank loans
to sub-Saharan agriculture. But the toll on human life was even worse. Djibouti, Ethiopia
and Kenya also suffered heavy casualties.
As early as October 1997, meteorologists forecast severe El Niño-generated drought
across mush of southern Africa. Zimbabwe and other previously affected nations set
aside funds for expected food imports. Farmers and other previously affected nations set
aside funds for expected food imports. Farmers planted drought-resistant crops and
conserved seed and water -- but heavy rains in January 1998 dispelled their fears.
Even so, Namibia’s total harvest fell nearly a third from 1997 output and Zambia’s maize
Despite southern Africa’s comparatively good fortune during the 1997-98 event, the Horn of Africa experienced heavy, unseasonal
rainfall from October 1997 to January 1998, causing floods that displaced at least 1.5 million people and affect nine million more.
Flooding along the Juba and Shabelle river valleys in Somalia claimed around 2,000 lives and damaged 60,000 hectares of
agricultural land. Thousands more fell victims to water-borne disease. Floods ruined the harvested crops and next season’s seed,
which Somalis traditionally store underground. And thousands of animals drowned or starved for want of fodder, threatening the very
existence of families who would normally sell their livestock to cope with sudden crisis.
Roads, railways and irrigation systems throughout the Horn were severely damaged. The World Food Programme (WFP) had difficulty
shipping food to intended recipients and was forced to use more costly air transport. Damage to transportation infrastructure impeded
shipments of exports not just from the affected regions, but also from inland countries (e.g., Uganda) to coastal areas.
In Sudan’s North Darfur state, farmers and nomads used to battling against drought were drenched with up to 91 millimetres of rain a
day. Kenya’s coast and northeast experienced the worst floods in nearly 40 years -- killing 60 percent of the region’s cattle. Torrential
may rains in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam, claimed 4,000 lives, and in Ethiopia floods inundated 30,000 hectares of land and
swept away 10,000 animals. In all, over 15,000 east Africans died as a direct result of El Niño-related floods and disease -- amounting
to nearly three-quarters of the total global death toll.
But why didn’t El Niño bring drought to southern and eastern Africa, as it did in 1991-92? The phenomenon’s effect changes with the
variability of its strength and timing, especially in relation to seasonal rains. And the relationship between its fluctuations and the
weather of higher and lower latitudes is never linear. Local climate variations also affect regional weather. "During 1997 and 1998, the
Indian Ocean was abnormally warm," reveals Kelly Sponberg of NOAA. "This may well have influenced climate variably over parts of
Africa. Was the Indian Ocean abnormally warm because of El Niño? Or was El Niño aggravated by abnormal Indian Ocean sea-
surface temperatures? They are connected, but no one really knows which influences the other more, or if there is feedback within the
Direct attribution of epidemics to El Niño phases is complicated by factors like local nutrition, prior concentration of the pathogen in
host populations and natural population cycles. But the 1997-98 event bears a lot of the blame for epidemics accompanying the Horn
floods. Rift Valley fever affected nearly 90,000 Kenyans and Somalis -- an epidemic so severe the Saudi government banned imports
of animals from Horn countries. Worse still, cholera is now endemic to eastern Africa and the Horn -- in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda,
around 100,000 cases and over 5,000 deaths were reported last year.
So marked is El Niño’s effect on Africa that much attention has been focused on using climate information to help save lives, promote
food security, manage land more effectively and improve energy production. Drought in sub-Saharan Africa is predicted by the United
Nations’ (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization’s FEWS (Famine Early Warning System), which issues monthly bulletins on rainfall,
food production and vulnerability forecasts. Prior to and during the 1997-98 El Niño, a series of climate-outlook forums was convened.
Mainly designed to provide a consensus forecast of seasonal rainfall and temperature, the process (led by the Southern African
Regional Climate Outlook Forum and similar groups from the Horn and western Africa) provided a regional framework for coordinated
production, dissemination and interpretation of forecast information.
Compound disasters demand comprehensive solutions
1997-98’s el Niño have claimed the lives of over 21,000
people worldwide. The World Bank estimated global
damage costs may surpass US$ 8 billion and the bulk of
that was in South America. The Worldwatch Institute in New
York billed international economic losses at US$ 89 billion.
Parts of the eastern Pacific rim may take five or six years to
rebuild completely and return to pre-El Niño production
levels. But that could be too slow, since the phenomenon
can strike every two to three years -- so those areas recently
hit could suffer from two more El Niños before they
completely recover from the 1997-98 event.
"compound disasters" in which natural catastrophes shatter
societies already flawed by inherent economic and political
fault lines. In Peru, El Niño’s floods inflicted production and
transportation problems on a mining sector already reeling
from lost revenues as metal prices plummeted during the
Asian economic crisis. Consequently, Peru’s trade gap
Elsewhere, compound disasters were even more pronounced. In Indonesia, economic crisis was aggravated by El Niño-driven
drought, which precipitated food shortages, desperate hunger and persistent, widespread air pollution from rampant wildfires. This
contributed to such popular discontent that the nation’s 30 year-old government eventually collapsed (see box 6.2). Many economists
point to this chain of events as a catalyst for recent world economic turmoil. In Papua New Guinea, unseasonally cold weather, drought
and highland fires associated with El Niño destroyed the country’s main crop, wreaking havoc on its undiversified economy. A huge
tsunami -- a kind of tidal wave generated by a submarine earthquake -- compounded Papua’s problems by devastating coastal areas
and leading to pronounced political unrest. A recent World Bank analysis reported "this country is a hopeless case with no hope for
So what can be done to mitigate the effects of future El Niño/La Niña phenomena? The international NGO CARE recognizes that
compound disasters of the kind seen in Indonesia mean agencies must face "the challenging issue of integrating relief, rehabilitation
and development - sometimes within the same district - into a coherent overall strategy." In practice, this involves meeting immediate
needs while protecting and strengthening longer-term livelihoods. Many families sold seeds, livestock and even land to stay alive --
threatening themselves with destitution. CARE implemented labour-intensive food-for-work and cash-for-work projects to improve
basic infrastructure and generate the income families need to survive without selling off their most precious assets.
In autumn 1997, the UN, alarmed by the unusual strength of the latest El Niño and its anticipated development, established an El Niño
Inter-Agency Task Force of all specialized UN agencies concerned with natural disasters. Within the framework of the International
Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR 1990 to 2000), the task force worked during 1998 to ensure concerted action on El
Niño, and contributed to a scientific review of the phenomenon at a conference in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
The IDNDR has highlighted disaster-resilient infrastructure
as one important requirement within integrated disaster
prevention planning. Hospitals and other medical buildings,
roads and bridges, water reservoirs and supply facilities,
communication lines, port installations, airports and similar
infrastructure are crucial for ensuring basic services before,
during and after a natural disaster. Fragile infrastructure
increases vulnerability and risk. And its destruction
exacerbates disasters and increases rehabilitation costs
severely. "Development programmes must insist on an
extra ten percent to make key roads and bridges storm-proof,
otherwise when the next El Niño hits, things will just get
worse," said Wolfgang Wagner of the IDNDR.
John Rogge of the UN Development Programme’s
Emergency Response Division argues that, despite
previous experience and clear scientific warnings, nations
did not respond quickly enough to the latest El Niño.
This reveals disconnections between the high-tech world
of climate scientists, the political and humanitarian arenas of governments and aid agencies and the community level where much
disaster preparedness must begin. One key way of bridging these gaps, suggests Rogge, is to create or strengthen a national
disaster management authority in every highly vulnerable country. Ideally this authority should answer directly to the president or prime
minister, so that it can coordinate the roles of other ministries -- including defence, public health, education, civil defence and transport
-- within the framework of a national disaster management plan. "It is not so much a question of disasters becoming more frequent,"
says Rogge, "but rather of ever-more people becoming more vulnerable by having no choice but to live in high-risk areas."
Speaking at a forum in February 1999 on post-Hurricane Mitch reconstruction, Eduardo Stein Barillas, minister of foreign affairs of
Guatemala, argued that in addition to international aid, the private sector is a key actor in long-term reconstruction: "All destruction
carries with it an opportunity for foreign investment," he said. Caio Koch-Weser, managing director of operations at the World Bank,
speaking at the same forum, stressed the importance of adopting a culture of prevention in development programmes. He suggested
the World Bank should rate countries by their disaster preparedness to provide an indicator for reinsurance companies.
But insurance density is still minimal in developing countries. The ice-storm which paralysed south-east Canada and parts of the
northern US in January 1998 caused economic losses totaling around US$ 2.5 billion, of which 46 percent was covered by insurance.
In Peru, the 1997-98 El Niño caused public infrastructure losses of US$ 2.6 billion, of which, just US$ 150 million was insured -- less
than 6 percent. One solution to address this imbalance would be for governments of El Niño-threatened nations to pool risks and
premiums with the insurance industry in order to offer poorer people affordable cover.
Disaster prevention, preparedness and recovery measures, drawn from the organizations mentioned above and others, range from
community to international initiatives and include:
• Using early warning systems to forecast the severity of imminent El Niños in time to prepare;
• Mobilizing political will to act on scientific predictions and prepare for potential disaster;
• Creating or strengthening national disaster management authorities;
• Developing appropriate disaster prevention, preparedness and coping strategies at regional, national and community levels;
• Assessing the location, threat and return period of natural hazards;
• Mapping areas and populations vulnerable to natural hazards;
• Building stronger infrastructure to withstand the effects of severe weather;
• Improving roads and evacuation routes;
• Strengthening water and sanitation facilities, and building public awareness to combat the spread of contagious diseases;
• Reversing environmental degradation, including deforestation;
• Passing land-use planning and zoning laws to limit dangerous population concentrations;
• Developing drought-, flood- and cyclone-resistant cropping patterns;
• Food-and cash-for work projects to improve local infrastructure and incomes;
• Reforming the insurance industry to help cover private-sector damage more adequately;
• Enabling private-sector and foreign investment to participate in long-term reconstruction;
• Diversifying economies to reduce reliance on weather-dependent industries; and
• Linking debt-relief to disaster preparedness and sustainable development measures.
Scientists spot El Niño six months in advance
For the first time ever, the latest El Niño and its accompanying droughts and floods were predicted by scientists up to six months in
advance, giving countries like Peru time to prepare.
Remote early warning systems were put in place after the severe 1982-83 vent took the world’s scientific community by surprise. NOAA
anchored 70 buoys across the equatorial Pacific to help predict the future El Niños. Known as the TAO (tropical atmosphere-ocean)
array and completed in 1994, the buoys measure the surface air and wind conditions, and sea temperatures to a depth of around 500
meters. Combined with data from the French-American TOPEX-Poseidon satellite, which monitors ocean circulation and sea-levels,
climate scientists are better informed than ever before. NOAA estimates that improved long-range forecasts could save producers and
consumers in the US alone between US$ 240 to 324 million every year. Nevertheless, accurate forecasting of specific effects remains
problematic. As Giovanni Rufini, coordinator of the Brussels-based Voluntary Organizations in the Cooperation in Emergencies
(VOICE), points out: "Several predicted droughts have instead turned out to be floods," although he agrees continued development of
such systems is "vital."
Over the next three years, a British university is launching a new remote-monitoring system in the Pacific. Called the Argo programme,
it employs a series of floats which, by using deflatable bladders, will dive to depths of 2,000 meters every two weeks, take readings on
ocean currents, sea temperature and salinity, and return to the surface to transmit their data back by satellite. The programme will help
solve one of the key problems facing scientists trying to predict future El Niños: lack of baseline data. Scientists can then feed the data
into supercomputers which create climate models capable of predicting anomalies in temperature and precipitation up to a year in
advance -- a technique now more accurate than traditional statistical analysis.
Lack of monitoring devices in the Indian and Atlantic oceans still hampers forecasts for Africa and South America. However, the Global
Ocean Observing System (GOOS), set up under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), based at
UNESCO in Paris, will eventually cover these areas.
But there is far more to disaster preparedness than simply advance warning. More sophisticated early warnings systems and advance
planning are crucial -- but remain useless if governments lack the political will to act on the information.
The commodity-driven economies of the developing world are less equipped to withstand the effects of natural disaster because their
small industrial bases are usually centralized and economic production tends to rely on raw processes like agriculture, mining, fishing
or lumber -- sectors exposed to the effects of severe weather. Diversification of economies could insulate nations from the economic
turmoil that often accompanies weather-related hazards like El Niño. And it would foster the kind of development needed to help raise
populations out of poverty.
But diversification should include inter-regional integration to help share the fallout from El Niño’s effects. During the 1997-98 event, for
example, seas off Ecuador and Peru warmed up so much that vital stocks of sardines anchovies moved south to cooler, richer waters
-- and Chilean fishermen enjoyed a bumper catch at the expense of their northern neighbors. Meanwhile, vast quantities of shrimps,
suitable facilities in the neighboring Colombia and Central America languished underused. One solution would be to develop a
system of balancing out regional gains and losses. As Hernando Dicho Vasquez, a Peru-based disaster preparedness consultant
points out: "The economic problems would be more limited if governments found a way to look beyond their borders for solutions."
El Niño dictates political agenda
Returning to Trujillo, the direct effects of El Niño had waned by the end of 1998. President Fujimori had circumvented damaged
transportation systems by requisitioning naval vessels to move vegetable produce and other perishables from Peru’s northern coast
to markets in Lima or elsewhere. Major highways near Trujillo had been patched or re-routed and key bridges connecting the city to the
south of the country had been rebuilt, though some with only temporary replacements. Citizens had grown used to the changes --
adjusting journeys to avoid the worst damaged roads, and boiling drinking water or adding iodine to kill the water-borne bacteria that
had caused so much disease during El Niño’s peak.
But economists say the legacy El Niño-related damage will linger for years. "These rebuilding efforts divert resources, affect the well-
being of citizens and hurt confidence in the country and government," said Lima-based economist Jorge Gomes, a former government
minister. That worries Fujimori, the Peruvian president, and his controlling Cambio-90-Nuevo Mayoria political party. Early indications
suggest Fujimori will stand for an unprecedented third term as president in 2000. If so, his task will be made doubly difficult by
approval ratings that took as much of a pounding from El Niño as did his battered nation. Almost daily, local media run stories
outlining the aggressive port-El Niño strategy the government is using to help spark recovery and win back the favour of the
electorate. Pollsters insist that for that strategy to work, Peruvians will have to forget the government’s slow initial reactions to El Niño
and focus instead on its activities since then. "It was only when the water was up to our necks that government officials started paying
attention to what we said," complained Jose Aguilar, mayor of the coastal city of Piura, one of the worst-hit cities in Peru. "If there is a
good side to all this, it is that governments in the future may remember how much people suffered. Maybe they will not let this happen
|(c) 1999 World Disaster Report
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
All rights reserved.
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