Vol. 4, No. 1 October 1998
El Niño and the Keys to Successful Mitigation
The 1997-98 El Niño phenomenon has brought into focus the urgent need to better understand this climate phenomenon and its impacts, and the need to develop better means of responding to it by incorporating a strategy combining early warning, community-level awareness, regional cooperation and resource-sharing, and a greater understanding of its effects.
What are the impacts of El Niño? It disrupts agricultural practices in Southeast Asia, causing food shortages throughout the region. El Niño-related dry conditions provoke highly destructive forest fires, which, as in the case of Indonesia in 1982-83 and 1997, can destroy millions of hectares. El Niño-induced drought increases demands on groundwater supplies. Drought causes shallow wells dependent on monsoon replenishment to fail. Floods lead to fresh water pollution, which limits potable water supplies, leading to high treatment costs, and the need for expensive methods such as cloud seeding to augment fresh water. El Niño also affects coral ecosystems and fishery resources.
Climate changes affect health via interconnected pathways: distribution and quality of surface water, life cycle of disease vectors and host/vector relationships, and ecosystem dynamics of predator/prey relationships which control populations of disease vectors. Changes in weather patterns related to ENSO are associated with upsurges of numerous diseases from hepatitis to malaria and encephalitis.
El Niño has broader economic effects, too. Monsoon failure affects agriculture, but the effect then spreads to industry and broader economies via shortages of raw materials, reduced demand because of reduced agricultural incomes, shift in consumer demand away from industrial products because of higher food costs, and higher imports to meet food and industrial needs, affecting a nation's balance of trade.
Predicting ENSO events with accuracy, using manageable technology, is the first and most important steps in mitigation. FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System closely monitors weather anomalies and assesses possible effects, allowing for timely preventive actions. Southeast Asian countries have also developed early warning systems. But systems are not adequately coordinated region-wide, diminishing effectiveness, and data is often not readily user-accessible.
Lead time from timely forecasts can assist farmers to change agronomic practices and crop mixes during both wet and dry seasons. Suitable agronomic practices during wet seasons may help in taking advantage of the favorable conditions (typhoon-free, flood-free) of El Niño. El Niño predictions can be used effectively by establishing contingency crop planning to suit different weather models. For example, in 1997, Philippine authorities initiated programs to limit the effects of expected reduced rainfall on crops, including campaigns promoting the use of rice varieties which mature earlier than traditional types, and the distribution of fertilizers to enhance yields.
Effective water management systems, hard landscaping techniques to maintain a drought resistant ground cover, policies to prevent excess ground water extraction and controls on discharging pollutants into water bodies are some of the strategies that can be incorporated in mitigation programs.
Prompt intervention for the provision of food is an essential component. National and local capacity should be strengthened and supported by proper logistical systems. Food selection should take into account suitability, local habits, and availability of fuel and clean water. Agro-based industries can be part of the strategy by processing and preserving food during normal seasons for consumption during vulnerable seasons. Open borders and free regional trade can improve food availability. Policies should be geared towards encouraging commercial links which can speed the food distribution to the needy, and controlling price hikes during peak demand.
Forest fires in critical watershed areas may have an indirect but significant effect upon agricultural production on lands downstream. There is an acute need to raise public awareness about the need for drought preparedness and mitigation. Anti-deforestation and reforestation promotion policies, and a ban on burning, need to be integrated into development policies. Fire-resistant plants and plants with high water content also can serve in incremental approaches.
The only way to mitigate the impacts of El Niño-induced epidemics and upsurges of water borne diseases is to intervene at the right ventures. Water, sanitation, and medical response systems must be maintained in a state of readiness. Disaster mitigation strategies should specifically focus on utilities such as urban sewer systems, which can overflow in floods and contaminate drinking water sources. Climate forecasting can help precisely target scarce funding to maximize effectiveness.
In facing El Niño, there are four essential components of a mitigation strategy. First, a fully coordinated regional forecast and early warning system is essential. Information from this system must also be understandable and usable to the ultimate users. Second, there is a need for a true community-based public education and awareness campaign targeting communities rather than just senior administrators and policy makers. Third, there is an urgent need for a framework for regional cooperation for exchange of information and technical expertise and sharing of resources, as well as a need for a regional center to coordinate and institutionalize initiatives in managing El Niño and La Niña related crises on an ongoing basis.
Finally, gaps in our understanding of El Niño must be addressed. A better understanding is needed of El Niño and linkages with macro-economic factors; the quantitative impact on public health in terms of spread of epidemics; and the links with environmental disasters such as forest fires. A better understanding of such linkages will greatly aid disaster prevention and mitigation.
This article is based on the ADPC Position Paper presented at the Asian Regional Meeting on El Nino Related Crises held in Bangkok from February 2-6, 1998.
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