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2015–2016 El Niño: Early action and response for agriculture, food security and nutrition - Update # 9

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What is El Niño?

El Niño is the warming of sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific, which occurs roughly every two to seven years, lasting from six to 24 months.

While reduced rainfall and drought is a key outcome of El Niño, the phenomenon can also cause heavy rains and flooding. Impacts of El Niño on agriculture and food security depend on a complex interplay of meteorological factors and range from minor to severe. The current 2015–16 El Niño is notable in terms of its strength and also its negative impact on crop production, livestock and agricultural livelihoods around the globe.

Background and purpose

The impact of the 2015–16 El Niño weather phenomenon has been one of the most intense and widespread in the past one hundred years. The agriculture, food security and nutritional status of 60 million people around the globe is affected by El Niño-related droughts, floods and extreme hot and cold weather. While the El Niño itself has passed its peak and is now declining, its impact is still growing. Harvests in several parts of the world have already failed and are forecast to fail in other areas.

This report provides a global analysis of the current and expected evolution of El Niño-related disasters and their impact on agriculture, food security and nutrition. It aims to give a consolidated outlook of the situation and the early actions being taken by governments, partners and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Analysis in the report is divided between FAO high priority countries (pp 5-31) and other countries at risk (pp 32-43). Countries were selected based on a combination of analysis of the El Niño event and FAO priorities for strengthening the resilience of livelihoods to threats and crises.

In view of the rapid evolution of the El Niño phenomenon, this report is updated regularly. It is part of a more general effort by FAO to increase the resilience of rural populations threatened by crises, including extreme climatic events such as El Niño. Given the high degree of exposure and vulnerability of populations to such events, the need for a focus on resilience building is clear. A recent ten-year analysis led by FAO’s Climate, Energy and Tenure Division showed that 25 percent of all damage caused during natural disasters is in the agriculture sector. For drought, agriculture is the single most affected sector, absorbing around 84 percent of all the economic impact.

Regional Highlights


  • Ethiopia – an estimated 10.2 million people are still in need of food and non-food assistance in 2016. Malnutrition rates across the country remain extremely high, with over one-third of Ethiopia’s woredas classified as facing a food security and nutrition crisis.

  • Somalia – drought has been declared in Puntland and Somaliland, where some communities have not experienced normal rains for up to four seasons, spanning two years. Nearly 4.7 million people are food insecure. Of this figure, 1.7 million people are in Puntland and Somaliland.

  • Southern Africa – latest estimates by SADC indicate that 39.7 million people are projected to be food insecure by the peak of the 2016/17 lean season. Regional cereal balance sheet analysis (excluding DRC, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Tanzania) shows overall cereal deficit of about 9.3 million tonnes. Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have declared drought emergencies. The forecast continues to indicate drier than normal conditions.

  • Sudan – 4.6 million people are acutely food insecure, primarily due to the effects of El Niño, and is likely to increase due to below-average agricultural production in 2015, rising staple food prices, very poor pasture conditions and continued conflict.

Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Haiti – an estimated 3.6 million are food insecure. The 2015 cereal harvest was the lowest in 12 years with losses as high as 90 percent in most affected areas.

  • Central America – currently experiencing the worst drought in decades, which is affecting food insecurity for a second consecutive year, with over 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance after suffering major crop losses due to prolonged drought conditions. Rainfall levels have remained abnormal and below-average due to the dissipating El Niño. It is likely that the region will continue experiencing extremely warm and dry conditions through to June 2016 in most countries, which may affect planting of the main 2016 “de primera” agricultural season.

Asia and the Pacific

  • Fiji – crop damage from recent Category 5 cyclones is combining with unusual rainfall patterns to intensify food security risks. Total damage to crops and livestock is estimated at USD 61 million.

  • Papua New Guinea – a third of the population – 2.7 million people – are affected by drought, frost and forest fires.

  • Viet Nam – more than 83 percent of the country has been affected by drought, of which 18 provinces have declared drought and saltwater intrusion emergencies at different levels.