UN warns current El Niño event is strongest since 1998 and will continue into early 2016

Niger, Tahoua region, November 2011  Prices at Niger’s food markets are spiking in the aftermath of a patchy harvest, causing concern among food security experts that many could soon go hungry. “The unusually high food prices are affecting vulnerable people who are facing growing difficulties to feed themselves and their children,” said WFP Niger Country Director Denise Brown. “I am extremely worried about the food situation deteriorating in the coming months. We cannot sit back and wait for the worst to come,” she said. Niger is currently in the immediate post-harvest period, a time when the price for staples like millet ought to be coming down. Instead the failed harvest, brought on by drought, has driven them up. According to the Government of Niger, some 750,000 people across the country are severely insecure, a number expected to reach one million by early 2012 as the country moves towards its traditional lean season in March and April. In response to the looming food crisis, WFP is aiming to support some 3.3 million people over the coming year with life-saving food assistance.
 Parched Earth in Tahoua province.Unusually low rainfall in the 2011 rainy season has seen river beds,lakes and even resevoirs wiped of the map through-out the country.  Photo: WFP/Phil Behan

The third Advisory Note on El Nino for Asia-Pacific countries, issued jointly by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Africa and Asia (RIMES), warns that the current El Nino event is likely to be one of the strongest since 1997-1998 and will persist into the second quarter of 2016.

The current 2015-2016 El Niño began with mild and localised conditions in the Pacific in late 2014 and has now intensified to cover a large swath of Asia and the Pacific. The result is that the impact of the current El Niño is likely to become even more severe in certain locations, such as central and southern India, central and northeast Thailand, the central and southern Philippines, the uplands of Cambodia, eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and many other Pacific island countries.

The Advisory Note highlights that the reduced rainfall is already impacting agriculture in several countries, causing a loss of income and reducing the coping capacity of those affected– especially in Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. Papua New Guinea, among many other Pacific island countries, has been experiencing a serious drought over the past several months affecting 2.4 million people alone. The Advisory Note warns that as the El Nino intensifies over December 2015 to early 2016, continued drought conditions and water shortages may loom over an estimated 4.7 million people in the Pacific islands.

As El Nino is a complex phenomenon, it is also likely to be linked with severe flooding in southern India and northern Sri Lanka. This follows previous Advisory Note forecasts of excessive El Nino induced rainfall in this region, which is also expected to continue into early 2016.

Some countries are already responding or adapting to El Nino conditions, and preparing for further impacts in the coming months. The current discussions at COP21 in Paris have furthermore noted the possibility of climate change induced El Nino risks.

Given the cross border nature of El Nino risks, regional cooperation is critical in supporting national efforts. Climate hazards like El Nino cannot be viewed as discrete, occasional events, the Note indicates, but rather they need to be addressed as long term climate risks which undo development gains, and which can be prepared for, adapted to, and addressed in a collective manner.

Although no two El Niño events are the same, the risk patterns observed during the past can be used as a guide to take appropriate preventive risk reduction measures to address shared vulnerabilities and risks. Early warning systems and multi-stakeholder platforms need to be strengthened to facilitate user understanding of long-term risks, and harmonization of risk management strategies and sustainable development plans is urgently needed.

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