Facing up to El Niño: Preparing Asia-Pacific to weather the storm of natural disasters

In the event of an El Niño associated drought due to low-rainfall during the summer monsoon, India’s GDP could potentially fall by $23 billion, says a new United Nations assessment on the possibilities and policy options for governments attached to the impacts of the El Niño weather phenomenon in Asia and the Pacific.

El Niño, a weather pattern caused by periods of warming in the Pacific Ocean, is known to trigger sea surface temperature fluctuations that result in unseasonal weather occurrences such as storms, floods and massive droughts. The latest insights from the joint analytical study of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Regional Integrated Multi-hazard Early Warning System (RIMES) show that natural disasters resulting from El Niño could have damaging socio-economic effects for the Asia and Pacific region, generating human insecurities and significant hazards for a region highly dependent on its agricultural sector’s crop production.

The analysis highlights that scientific organizations worldwide have estimated a 70 per cent chance of an El Niño event in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, and an 80 per cent chance during autumn/winter of 2014-2015. These predictions continue to raise the question of what initiatives policymakers can take in order to mitigate potential losses. The policy brief considers two possible scenarios.

The first, with an onset in August, forecasts a significant impact on the macro-economy of South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific region due to smaller amounts of rainfall than during regular conditions. The impacts of this are a potential loss to India’s GDP of $23 billion, to Indonesia of $7.7 billion, and for Thailand, $983 million. Scenario two predicts an onset after September with a lesser impact on the region, as the North-East monsoon could in fact bring favorable amounts of rain to West and Central Asia. However, when humanitarian concerns are also taken into account, there may be forced migration and food and health insecurities, thereby increasing poverty in the region.

In continuing to emphasize mitigation strategies for these outcomes, ESCAP experts insist it is important for governments to include the Climate Change Agreement (CCA) and mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) into national development plans, strengthen early warning systems and establish common discussions such as monsoon forums, as well as to broadcast strategies for coping with disasters (especially in the agricultural industry). International and regional organizations must also work towards resilience-building with regards to climate risk by creating platforms for the sharing of knowledge on the matter, and providing support for countries that have created suitable policies towards El Niño protection.

As part of ESCAP’s sustainable development policy, the organization has pushed forward projects on DRR and (CCA) and into Sustainable Development in countries with high El Niño risks in order to promote adaptation and resilience strategies. As one example the ESCAP Trust Fund on Tsunami, Climate Preparedness and Disasters has continuously worked to highlight projects regarding climate resilience. National monsoon forums have been set up in Myanmar, Nepal, and the Maldives to serve as platforms for publicizing information regarding climate risk to stakeholders who have the capacity to establish mid-term intervention for risk reduction.

At the operational level, the ESCAP Regional Cooperative Mechanism for Drought Monitoring and Early Warning supports incorporating climate risk into seasonal forecasting in order to be able to provide early warnings. More specifically, the Regional Drought Mechanism project in Sri Lanka demonstrates how, for example, El Niño predictions could be integrated into seasonal forecasts, monitored and possibly detected by early warnings of drought. The implementation of such climate assessing mechanisms provides crucial information that could bridge previous knowledge gaps regarding climate risk.