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December 2000

New ESIG/UNEP report: Time to get ready for next El Niño

Mickey Glantz.

Now is the time for vulnerable countries around the globe to begin preparing for the next El Niño, according to a United Nations report being issued early next year. The report was prepared by a team led by principal investigator Mickey Glantz (Environmental and Societal Impacts Group) and funded by the UN Foundation.

A 19-month study of 16 countries examined what worked and what didn't in national responses to the forecasts and impacts of the 1997–98 El Niño. Droughts, floods, fires, and frost related to that event—dubbed the "El Niño of the Century"—took hundreds of lives and left behind at least $32 billion in damage, including destruction of infrastructure, depletion of food and water reserves, displacement of communities, and outbreaks of disease.

"The 1997–98 event was a wake-up call," says Mickey. "Awareness of what El Niño can do to societies and economies is now high." According to Mickey, the periods between El Niño events (such as the neutral phase we're now in) are the best times to improve understanding of the phenomenon and devise ways to better cope with its potential direct and indirect effects.

A revised and updated edition of Mickey Glantz's popular book Currents of Change: Impacts of El Niño and La Niña on Climate and Society (Cambridge University Press) has just been released. It examines the major El Niño of 1997–98 and suggests how societies can manage climate-related activities and disaster preparation. The SCD–National Centers for Environmental Prediction archive of sea-surface temperature data was used to create animations of the development of the 1997–98 El Niño and the 1998–2000 La Niña, which readers can view by flipping pages in the book.

At the moment, says Mickey, there is "a general lack of belief among potential forecast users around the world in the reliability of the forecast." Uncertainties exist about the science of El Niño and how to use probabilistic forecasts of events and impacts.

Scientists and the media tend to refer to El Niño's environmental impacts as if they affect an entire country, notes the report. Yet, because of typically diverse topographical features, seldom is a whole country affected by the same El Niño–related anomaly. For example, northern Peru and southeastern Brazil typically experience heavy rains and floods during El Niño. Southern Peru and northeast Brazil usually suffer from drought. Such in-country differences need to be better understood and articulated in order to maximize the usefulness of forecasts to governments, industries, the public, and the media, the study says.

Each event has its own surprises. During El Niño the Pacific coast of Costa Rica commonly suffers from drought, whereas its Atlantic coast remains wet. In 1997, thousands of cattle were moved away from the Pacific coast to the north-central region to escape a predicted drought, only to perish because of an unexpected drought in the resettlement area.

Many nations, many lessons

In spring 1999 the UN Environment Programme received a $650,000 grant from the UN Foundation to organize the El Niño study, requested by the UN General Assembly. UNEP and NCAR took the lead, working closely with three UN partners—the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and UN University. A study team was established for each of the countries to assess its response to the 1997–98 El Niño forecast. Participating nations are Bangladesh, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kenya, Mozambique, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

The complete 16-country study, to be published early in 2001, addresses the challenges faced by these nations and recommends specific actions to help reduce devastation from the next El Niño. A preliminary report issued in October called for the following actions, among many others:

  • Involve heads of states early in climatic disaster policy and action

    "El Niño forecasting in itself has no intrinsic value. What value it has is [in] how people react to it," says WMO secretary-general Godwin Obasi. "A relatively small investment must be made to improve world forecasting capabilities so that government decisions are based on authoritative information and the grief and economic losses caused by El Niño can be mitigated."

    • Anatta

    On the Web:
    Reducing the Impact of Environmental Emergencies Through Early Warning and Preparedness—The Case of El Niņo-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)

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    Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
    Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
    Last revised: Wed Dec 13 17:30:40 MST 2000