The 2015-2016 El Niño phenomenon is one of the strongest since 1950, and its impact – already affecting over 60 million people and expected to rise – may last for two years. In the face of this critical threat to food security, health and the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the world, a concerted global effort is required to prevent an even more serious humanitarian disaster in the coming months. Any response must be effective at on two consecutive fronts: supporting immediate food, water, nutrition and health needs, and supporting resilience, including building individual and community capacity to respond to future shocks. With an unprecedented number of simultaneous humanitarian crises ongoing, we need to ensure that the urgent needs of the 60 million affected are not ignored.


Starting in April 2015 El Niño started to grow by December, disruptions in temperature, rainfall, and surface air pressure across the tropical Pacific were on par with the strongest on record. Many regions experienced climate extremes and weather anomalies. Sixteen tropical cyclones formed in or passed through the unusually warm central Pacific hurricane basin in 2015, three times the average and four more than the previous record of 12 set in 1992 (also an El Niño year.) In late August, the basin sustained three category 4 hurricanes at the same time, a first, not just for the central Pacific, but for any basin during the modern record. Drought was also widespread. El Niño in the dry corridor of Central America resulted in a dry spell beginning in early June 2015 lasting until mid-September, severely affecting staple crops causing losses of up to 100 per cent. The Indian monsoon, on which the clear majority of the countries agriculture depends, fell to extremely low levels. Drought was also severe in Southern African and the Horn, with Ethiopia, Malawi and Angola significantly affected.


The long-term impact of the current El Niño has yet to be fully assessed but experience from past events illustrate the magnitude and losses from the phenomenon. The 1997-1998 El Niño, for example, caused at least 2000 direct deaths and at least US$33bn in damages.


Vulnerable communities suffer disproportionately from the degradation of ecosystems and natural resources, and the longer they suffer, the more their coping abilities deteriorate, undermining development gains. Children are among those suffering the most from the effects of El Niño, with drought conditions limiting their access to clean water, intake of nutritional food, health status and access to social services, access to education and child-friendly environments and also level of protection. Vulnerable and marginalised children, some without parental care, those with disabilities, from ethnic or religious minorities, or from the poorest segments of society, are likely to feel the effects of drought first. An integrated multi-sectoral response, which also addresses protection and education risks, is urgently required. Interventions that promote resilience must be prioritized, given the long-term consequences for children’s development. 


El Niño : Climat phenomenon

El Niño refers to the warming phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). It is a natural phenomenon that occurs in the central and eastern Pacific every three to seven years, on average. During an El Niño event, sea surface temperatures across the Pacific can warm by 1–3°F above neutral conditions and can last anywhere from a few months to two years in a reversal of normal climate conditions. El Niño is usually, though not always, followed by a cooling La Niña event, which is an intensified form of neutral climate conditions.
El Niño sea warming and La Niña sea cooling distort regular atmospheric air pressure patterns causing positive feedback loops that can increase the severity and frequency of floods, droughts, and storm events such as tornadoes and cyclones. ENSO events, in particular strong El Niño events, impact almost every aspect of human life including disease outbreaks, bug infestation, animal migration, agricultural yield, availability of water, energy demand, fishing, and forest fires, thus often existentially threatening many states. Exposure to El Niño or La Niña adds an extra layer of vulnerability to any country’s livelihood, especially developing countries, and can erode human development gains.
The trends forecasted by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society indicate a probability of around 70% of La Niña occurring in August and around 75% for each of the months from September to December 2016. The high probability of a La Niña event means increased risk of cyclones and flooding in Southern Africa, flooding and agricultural damage in West Africa, drought in East Africa and the Middle East, flooding in the Caribbean, and cyclones and flooding in Southern and Southeast Asia. As La Niña climactic effects tend to be the opposite of El Niño effects, but often in the same regions, already vulnerable populations’ challenges will be aggravated by the back-to-back extreme ENSO events. In order to prepare these at-risk countries, more resources for early warning and preparedness must be incorporated into current Humanitarian Response Plans.
The latest trends forecasted by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society : 

UNDP response to El Niño



6 December 2016: Meeting on Responding to El Niño/La Niña in East and Southern Africa - Geneva

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Ernesto Maio

Programme officer

Global Cluster for Early Recovery, Crisis interface, Crisis Response Unit, United Nations Development Programme UNDP

E-Mail : ernesto.maio@undp.org