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El Niño: Preparing for the worst – Interview with European Commission expert


The El Niño phenomenon is a disruption of the Pacific Ocean’s atmosphere system, characterised by unusually warm temperatures which severely change weather patterns. It can cause extreme phenomena such as massive floods, extreme droughts with catastrophic consequences around the globe.

Experts believe that this year El Niño will be stronger than ever, with an impact similar to the 1997-98 episode which caused a number of deadly disasters in Latin America, the Caribbean and across the world, affecting millions.

Jocelyn Lance, is the European Commission's Resilience and Rapid Response Coordinator in Latin America and the Caribbean. In this interview he explains how El Niño threatens the region, what challenges and impacts can be expected in coming months and what can be done to reduce risks.

What impact has El Niño had in Latin America and the Caribbean?

El Niño can be described as a warming of the ocean's sea surface along the coasts of Ecuador and northern Peru (appearing usually around the end of December), related also to a global oscillation (known as the southern Oscillation) with atmospheric pressure lower than normal over the eastern tropical Pacific and higher over Indonesia and northern Australia.

During an El Niño episode the normal patterns of tropical precipitation and atmospheric circulation become disrupted. The 1997-1998 El Niño generated massive floods and extreme droughts affecting over 27 million people in Central and South America.

It caused the loss of over 1 500 human lives.

It also generated more than € 28 billion in economic losses worldwide, although more than 70% of these losses were concentrated in the Americas (while most fatalities occurred in Africa), particularly affecting the agricultural and livestock sectors, as well as electricity, transport, health and, water and sanitation infrastructure.

Losses tallied up to more than € 6.8 billion in the Andean countries of Ecuador (equivalent to 14% of its gross domestic product), Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Ecuador and Peru were the worst affected. Almost 50% of economic losses were registered in the productive sector (agriculture and fishing). Due to the destruction of roads and bridges, the transport sector was also significantly affected.

How can the region prepare to face El Niño's impact?

El Niño’s impacts can be of several different types and varying levels of intensity from one region to another. Countries must build up preparedness efforts to the type of impacts and disasters they may have to face, based on past experience.

For instance, it is currently expected that El Niño may increase the severity of the drought affecting Central America, northern Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and some eastern Caribbean Islands.

But western Ecuador, northern Peru, Paraguay and neighbouring regions may be affected by massive floods, and subsequent landslides.

Peru has declared an emergency in 20 departments, anticipating droughts, floods, and possible cold waves – a drop in temperatures, which in the past has claimed hundreds of lives by causing ailments such as pneumonia, and devastated the livestock of many Andean communities.

Based on what happened in 1997-1998, contingency plans for families and national institutions must be reviewed and there is need for information sharing and early warnings for communities which may be affected. These are key steps to limit impact.

Getting involved and participating in preparedness and prevention efforts, training and drills can make a huge difference when facing severe weather events.

Proper preparation is the responsibility of everyone: individuals, institutions, even the private sector can play a key role in optimising the effectiveness of a contingency plan.

What is the European Commission doing to reduce the risk of disasters related to El Niño?

According to the International Research Centre on El Niño (CIIFEN, based in Ecuador’s Pacific coast), El Niño is particularly strong this year. The phenomenon could reach maximum intensity between November 2015 and January 2016, gradually weakening through spring 2016.

What is good is that El Niño can be anticipated. We know it is coming, and we must position ourselves to avoid preventable losses – whether of lives or livelihoods.

The European Commission is currently supporting targeted disaster risk reduction actions in areas presenting high local vulnerabilities and building capacity locally to face these hazards. Projects range from infrastructure works (building ditches, drainage channels, contention walls, water tanks) to protecting people and livelihoods (in designated shelters for residents or livestock), to supporting local, regional, national and international strategies and emergency plans for preparedness, evacuation, response and to facilitate an early recovery.

This year, the El Niño phenomenon will put to the test national risk management systems – from the global to the national and community levels. It will demonstrate both the achievements and the pending issues still to be addressed in order to reduce forth-coming risks.