After a prolonged three-year presence, La Niña has left the global atmospheric scene, making way for a likely imminent transition to El Niño, a meteorological event that typically oppositely distributes weather patterns. While this could relieve some drought-afflicted areas like the Horn of Africa, it may spell trouble for other parts of Africa, Central America, and Far East Asia. Given the record number of people facing acute food insecurity, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is scrutinizing the areas of the globe that are especially vulnerable to El Niño and how anticipatory action could be taken to mitigate its risks.
According to a new report by FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning Systems of the Markets and Trade Division and the Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Environment, Southern Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of Asia are of particular concern, as several countries in these regions already face high levels of acute food insecurity and key cropping seasons fall under the typical El Niño weather patterns of drier conditions. Northern areas of South America are also at risk of potential dryness, while Australia normally experiences suppressed rainfall.
“Early warnings mean that we have to take early and anticipatory action, and we will support our Members in these efforts, to the full extent resources allow,” said Rein Paulsen, head of FAO’s Office for Emergencies and Resilience.
In the wake of the El Niño episode of 2015 and 2016, which affected more than 60 million people in around 23 countries, FAO has worked tirelessly with its Members and other UN agencies to establish anticipatory action plans and protocols. Standard operating procedures have been crafted to expedite timely interventions such as setting up community seed stores, assessing strategic food reserves, and bolstering animal health surveillance campaigns.
FAO has developed Anticipatory Action protocols for drought in Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, southern Madagascar, Malawi, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Central America, and is ready to act early, in coordination with governments and partners, should the forecasts materialize.
While El Niño events and impacts are never alike, the broadly typical patterns enhance predictable regional consequences. FAO’s approach has been to map changes in vegetation conditions across the globe’s croplands and combine this analysis with crop calendars to better understand how rainfall deficits may affect production – the effects of water stress vary throughout a crop’s life cycle. This approach helps to identify areas at higher risk – those where dry conditions impact the entire crop cycle – and guide the type of interventions that should be implemented.
Under the Standard Operating Procedures for Early Action to El Niño/La Niña Episodes by the UN Interagency Standing Committee (IASC), anticipatory action initiatives advance in step with the likelihood that an El Niño event is brewing. FAO, OCHA, and the WMO together with other partners are monitoring the situation to determine the countries at the highest risk later in the year.
While rain will be a welcome relief to farmers in Argentina and Near East Asia, El Niño can also cause severe flooding harming agriculture and increasing the risk of disease. That’s a particular risk FAO has examined about East Africa, which has faced four years of extreme rainfall deficits and where recovery will, in any case, take a long time even if rainfall finally returns.
Image provided by FAO