El Niño is one of the most important drivers of climate variability worldwide. Reliable early warning is critical for preventing the climate hazard from developing into a full-grown disaster.
In 1997/98, an El Niño of unprecedented strength in modern records occurred, entailing heavy rains in North America, landslides in Peru and wildfires in Indonesia. As forecasts had largely failed to reliably predict the intensity of the El Niño event, most states were hit rather unprepared and the magnitude of damage was enormous, causing at least 33 billion USD in global loss and damage and claiming the lives of 23,000 people. Although available data had pointed towards a major weather event, fear of false prediction made forecasters excessively cautious to state the expected magnitude.
Scientists project that the 2015/16 El Niño that started earlier this year could be at least as strong and they have not been silent about the risks it poses. They are warning that the potential effects on health, food security, infrastructure and economic development are expected to be most severe on states and societies with the lowest adaptive capacity – elevating the risk of fragility and conflict. This El Niño will be another critical test of how well early warning systems are able to prepare for climate-fragility risks and if policy makers are able to start managing risks instead of responding to crisis.
El Niño describes an unusual warming of Pacific ocean surface temperatures with alarming knock-on effects on weather patterns around the world. The phenomenon occurs every two to seven years with varying intensity and different regional manifestations, ranging from heavy rainfall and tropical storms to severe droughts, with detrimental effects on the socio-economic development of the affected countries.
The Horn of Africa has been identified as one of the hotspots of this year’s El Niño. The episode is projected to bring a mixture of extreme drought and floods to Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. Periods of above-average drought already led to livestock death that could feed into herder conflicts and cattle raiding, with destabilizing effects on the drought-stricken region – whereas torrential rain expected for October to December could cause severe damage in flood-prone areas. These projections are possible because substantial progress has been made in the field of early warning since the 1997 El Niño. More reliable and regionally differentiated (sub-national) weather data and drought trend forecasts are available and can be important instruments to anticipate extreme weather.
At the same time research of the fragility risks El Niño poses has been progressing: Besides its humanitarian impacts, El Niño can present serious risks to stability, in particular for states that are already fragile and conflict-affected. A 2011 Nature study found that in states affected by the weather patterns, the risk of civil conflict doubles from 3 to 6 percent during El Niño years relative to La Niña years. The authors conclude that as much as 20 percent of civil conflicts since 1950 could be linked to the ENSO weather cycle. Reasons for this causal relationship may be poor harvests and livelihood insecurity enhancing the likelihood of rebel recruitment or reduced government capacity in coping with multiple stressors.
However, many East African governments still lack the capacity to make use of this data and knowledge for forward planning and disaster preparedness. In addition, the increased variability of manifestations of the El Niño phenomenon makes it increasingly hard for farmers and pastoralists to brace themselves, and even the governments of East African states are uncertain about how to prepare. The chronically food-insecure region has already seen substantial losses of staple food in earlier 2015, and weather conditions are creating a fertile soil for plant diseases like the rust fungus – with potentially severe consequences for coffee production, one of Kenya’s major cash crops.
To prevent future crises, governments should use the available information more strategically to support farmers in adjusting crop planting to weather conditions, stock grain reserves and establish livestock intervention programs.
While models can predict the onset and probability of El Niño occurrence with relative certainty today, vulnerability assessments and early warning often fail to include the likely socio-economic impacts – crucial for political leaders to design adequate responses. This strongly supports the call for integrated risk assessments that span the climate and conflict fields in order to prevent an escalation of the climate hazard.
But the effects of El Niño are not confined to regions struck by the extreme weather. El Niño can impede the supply of rain-driven agricultural commodities, creating inflation in global food prices and food shortages in import-dependent poor countries. Australian wheat yields, which account for 14 percent of the world’s exports, are projected to decrease by 50 percent in 2015 – with potentially destabilizing effects on wheat importing countries. Fear of food price spikes is also another reason for overly cautious predictions of El Niño’s severity. As the 2007-9 food crisis in Egypt has shown, food price volatility and high prices significantly elevate the risk of social unrest and even civil conflict.
Climate change is expected to double the frequency of extreme El Niño events in the future. This will elevate the risk of extreme weather events wreaking havoc around the globe, adding to a series of climatic stressors and disruptions that strain the resilience of fragile and conflict-affected states. The way states respond to this year’s El Niño is thus also a litmus test of how ready they are to counter the risks of climate change.
To prevent the looming climate hazard from developing into a full-fledged disaster, reliable forecasting and functioning early warning are integral instruments. With the scientific knowledge available on the 2015/16 El Niño event states not only need to start preparing for its immediate influence on weather pattern, but also need to analyze its socio-economic knock-on consequences, in particular the resulting conflict and fragility risk.
Katharina Nett is a Research Analyst at adelphi. This article originally appeared on the Resilience Compass blog. Read more on what foreign policy makers can do to improve early warning in the recommendations chapter of “A New Climate for Peace”, in particular action areas 1 (Global risk assessment) and 3 (Disaster risk reduction).