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Blog Post
19 October 2016
Author: Miron Arljung

The calm after the storm? How El Niño stirs up old development problems

El Niño marched the headlines throughout the last year. The El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, is a reoccurring weather phenomenon resulting in higher sea surface temperatures and air pressure over the Pacific.

What makes El Niño a complicated issue is that its’ effects and consequences differ from place to place. Generally, the effects include long periods of drought and erratic rainfall patterns. However, sometimes both of the two can occur within the same country at the same time, but in different regions. This blogpost gathers information about common problems associated with El Niño, building on the examples and impact stories from around the world. It also synthesizes information from reports, scientific articles and interviews with meteorologists and representatives of civil society.

Agriculture & Livelihoods

Many of the world’s rural poor depend on rainfed agriculture or pastoralism for their livelihoods. Countries affected by the latest 2015-16 El Niño, like Ethiopia, experienced long periods of drought in the years before this El Niño. When harvest decreases, farmers face a double challenge: they try to compensate for low productivity through more intensive land use, and they do so farming fatigued soil, which is already strained and hardened, with reduced ability to filter fluids. Hard soil also increases the risk of flash floods – an outstanding example of this event happened in Malawi where houses and farmlands were washed away, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

When livestock die and harvests fail, many farmers are forced to sell their agricultural assets and abandon their current livelihoods. This also impacts hired farm laborers because demand for their services falls. In countries like the Philippines, forest fires linked to drought burnt down 2 million hectares of forest that provide livelihoods for many people. Warmer weather also increases the strength of storms. In Fiji a cyclone completely destroyed harvests in the hardest hit areas. El Niño events also increase the pressure of domestic migration because many rural dwellers move to cities.

Due to the fact that entire regions can be affected simultaneously, the ability to import food decreases as neighboring countries can be struggling with food deficits as well. Trade barriers and additional costs related to food imports from further away add to ecological and economic stress of the affected countries.

Food prices also increase due to food shortages. For instance, food prices in the Democratic Republic of Congo increased up to 50 percent, hitting farming households especially hard because their incomes had already gone down due to harvest failure.

Health and education

When wells dry out and access to water diminishes, people have to turn to less hygienic and often stale water sources which are more likely to carry diseases like malaria, cholera and other gastro-intestinal infections. In addition, food shortage reduces resistance to diseases, especially in countries with high child malnutrition. Chronic hunger affects people’s ability to concentrate, which leads to lower work output for adults and makes it hard for children to focus in school. Higher food prices make it hard to afford school fees, and when the economic situation at home calls for more water fetching or help with other house duties, many families decide to take their children out of schools.



All of the issues related to El Niño strike hard against the already marginalized or disadvantaged groups of society; women and girls are affected disproportionally hard. Girls are more often than boys withdrawn from school and put in charge of collecting water or fuel at increasing distances from the house. During these walks, there is a high risk of sexual and other types of abuse. This can be supported by the fact that the number of pregnancies among very young girls and underaged marriages has also been rising in many El Niño affected countries.

Prediction and monitoring abilities

El Niño has been observed since the 19th century. Modern monitoring systems combine a number of different indexes and models, making it possible to predict and monitor El Niño in real time. However, knowledge gaps and margins of error remain. For example, the fact that El Niño interacts with normal annual weather changes can make it hard to figure out what its’ impact is compared to what would have happened otherwise, especially if we also want to include the influence of climate change. This makes it difficult to determine if a drought is “normal” or the result of El Niño and makes it harder to gather data for predicting future scenarios

There are also challenges related to communication, especially when it comes to bringing the information to the ground. Institutional barriers also make it hard to use the available data to its full potential. The result is that information and discussions about possible risk areas and impact can be limited to higher levels of social hierarchy, far away from the people who are directly affected. Maria Bernabes, coordinator of policy and research at Oxfam International’s regional center in Asia, argues that the importance of communication makes it vital to involve local population in data collection efforts because it will not only improve their understanding of the phenomenon, but will also increase local adaption capacity.

Photo by NOAA ESRL via Flikr CC BY 2.0Satellite image of the 2015 El Niño in November 2015. Photo credit: NOAA ESRL via Flikr (CC BY 2.0).

 A “natural” disaster?

Geographic and climatic conditions set the stage for El Niño, however, societal factors like population size also play important roles and can make all the difference. This can be illustrated by the example of Costa Rica, a country which belongs to the so called El Niño “dry belt” in Central America and which shares similar climate and nature with its neighbors, like Nicaragua and Guatemala. While these countries reported food crises during El Niño, Costa Rica did not.

Power distribution and poverty are important reasons of why El Niño and other natural phenomenon become “disasters” in some places but not in other. As Blaikie et al explains, political sensitivity might be the reason why decision makers prefer to frame a problem as a natural disaster, which requires emergency funding and tech support, instead of addressing issues of inequalities. One example of such a situation is the water distribution during El Niño in the Philippines. Bernabes from Oxfam describes how more powerful actors had easier access to water ration through means of corruption and contacts with governors, and could even hinder others’ access to water through armed guards.

Out of the ashes

Even though El Niño has peaked, humanitarian needs that follow in its wake are still substantial. In addition, there is a counterpart to El Niño called La Niña, a period of colder than normal ocean temperatures, which can cause further problems. Åke Johansson from SMHI, the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, explains how La Niña stretches over a longer timespan than El Niño and can potentially last for years. Even though La Niña is more akin to what could be called ”normal weather conditions”, the associated storms and heavy rains in countries like Indonesia, can be severe.

When societal capacity is already stretched to its limit, the ability to handle flash floods and similar stresses becomes low too. This explains why El Niño becomes such a big issue each time it occurs, despite the advanced monitoring abilities and the knowledge that it will happen over and over again. Both nature and society feel the impact of previous hardships and thus are worse equipped to handle new challenges. Prof. Jan Lundqvist, senior scientific advisor at SIWI, Stockholm International Water Institute, remarks that generational memory might not always carry through. This, combined with the fact that the effects of El Niño might not always be the same, makes it hard to prepare.

Action and preparedness

During the spring of 2016, a meeting between UN, civil society and government representatives was held in Rome with proposed El Niño response and recovery actions. The recommendations include emergency relief measures such as enforcement of riverbanks for flood prevention, emergency animal feed and seed distribution to farmers, cash-for-work initiatives and infrastructural repairs. The report from the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, also provides measures aimed at resilience in the long-term like developing local training programmes and policies, working across sectors in cluster groups to coordinate relief efforts, providing international expertise and technical support as well as improved data collection, monitoring and information sharing at both national and regional levels.

When it comes to response and aid measures, there is a classic problem of divide into humanitarian disaster relief and long-term development cooperation. This can cause some confusion as to who shall be doing what and when. According to King and Mutter, there are also emergency situations when the immediate needs create a danger of turning the relief measures into to a very top-down affair, in which expertise is brought from outside to deliver solutions that do not involve the local population.Planting a seed

The UN Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, emphasize that nature and society are connected in many different ways, and El Niño can be seen as a clear example this.

Photo by IAEA Imagebank via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pose for a group photo to help promote the Sustainable Development Goals. Photo credits: IAEA Imagebank via (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


With long term drought the foundation for farming is undermined and so are associated livelihoods (SDG1) as well as food production and access to food (SDG2). This in turn leads to malnutrition and lower public health (SDG3) which is exacerbated by stale water or lack of it (SDG6). The societal effects spill over to education (SDG4) and disproportionately affect women and girls (SDG5).

On the other hand, many actions which would help societies to better prepare for and handle El Niño would also have positive spillover effects for development as a whole. Climate smart agriculture, for example, can help us to build resilience against drought and contribute to biodiversity (SDGs 14 & 15), reduce emissions (SDG 13), contribute to sustainable production (12) and much more. In other words, lessons learnt from the systemic weaknesses exposed by El Niño can be a call for a holistic strategy and be a stepping stone towards sustainable development.

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