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             27 October 2000

Lessons from the 1997-98 El Niño: Once Burned, Twice Shy?

World must be better braced against catastrophic weather destruction, casualties;
Improved forecasts, preparedness needed to avoid thousands of deaths every few years

The full study is online at
Jointly released by United Nations University in Tokyo and Washington, United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi and World Meteorological Organization in Geneva.

Thousands of human casualties and tens of billions of dollars in economic damage will continue to befall the world's developing countries every two to seven years until an investment is made to improve forecasting and preparedness against El Niño, a new international study warns.

More reliable El Niño forecasts and the capability of governments to react quickly to them are critical. In the absence of such capabilities, vulnerable people, infrastructure and economies in many parts of the world will continue to suffer periodically from El Niño's wrath - floods, fires, drought, cyclones, and outbreaks of infectious disease.

The creation of regional organizations to prepare collective responses to El Niño is one of the key recommendations in the study developed by teams of researchers working in 16 countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The study was undertaken with the collaboration of four United Nations organizations - the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations University, the World Meteorological Organization, and the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction - together with the US-based National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

The study says few forecasters came close to forecasting El Niño's onset in mid-1997 and none were able to grasp the magnitude of the "El Niño of the Century" until it was well under way. National and regional forecasters typically provided predictions of El Niño impacts that in many cases were too general to be used with confidence by national and local decision makers. In some places, authorities were forced to make vital and costly decisions with uncertain - and in some cases misleading - information about El Niño's expected punch.

Losses from the El Niño in 1997-98 included thousands of deaths and injuries from severe storms, heat waves, fires, floods, frosts, and drought. Estimates of El Niño-related damage ranged from $32 to $96 billion. During an El Niño (Spanish for the Christ Child, named due to its typical onset in December) warm surface waters essentially pile up in the eastern Pacific along the equator. As a result, trade winds and ocean surface currents in the eastern and central Pacific reverse direction, resulting in a low pressure system hovering over parts of western South America, collecting heat and moisture that would otherwise be distributed in the west Pacific and elsewhere at sea. This shift also produces severe climate conditions in many parts of the world causing major social, economic and environmental impacts. El Niño and the subsequent cold phase - La Niña - phenomena are extremes of a larger cycle called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

Said Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program: "Too little is happening in developing countries to prepare for the next El Niño, despite having endured devastating damage and deaths in 1997-98. Developed countries have a moral obligation to help affected nations prepare for and minimize El Niño's setbacks in their battle against poverty and disease."

"El Niño is not a freak occurrence - it recurs every two to seven years on average and is becoming an increasingly predictable part of the global climate system. We need to accelerate our understanding of it and be better braced to deal with its devastating consequences," said Hans van Ginkel, UN Under Secretary-General and Rector of UN University.

"El Niño forecasting in itself has no intrinsic value. What value it has is how people react to it," says Godwin O.P. Obasi, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization. "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."

The 19-month study examined societal impacts of the 1997-98 El Niño in the 16 countries impacted by the 1997-98 event. Particular attention was given to how societies reacted to the El Niño-related events, with an eye towards the existing government infrastructure, management approaches, information flow, forecasting capabilities, early warning and disaster preparedness. The research was made possible with the support of the United Nations Foundation.

The project's purpose was to identify "what worked and what didn't with regard to societal responses to the forecasts and impacts of the 1997-98 El Niño event," said Dr. Michael Glantz, Senior Scientist at NCAR and the study's principal investigator. "We wanted to see what might have been done differently had an accurate (hypothetically perfect) forecast been available several months ahead of the onset of the last El Niño in March 1997. As a result of such an assessment in 16 countries, several lessons were identified; many of them proved to be similar among the countries."

Problems coping with the impacts of El Niño centered on:

  • forecast reliability;
  • lack of education and training about the El Niño phenomenon;
  • lack of sufficient resources to cope in a preventive or mitigative way;
  • lag time between forecast and impacts, responses and reconstruction;
  • jurisdictional disputes among government agencies;
  • political and economic conditions (or crises) during the event;
  • lack of donor sensitivity to local needs; and
  • poor communication amongst various key players.

While there may have been reasons to excuse the lack of appropriate responses by governments, industries or individuals to the 1997-98 El Niño, the story should not repeat itself when it comes to the next El Niño events, said Dr. Glantz.

"The 1997-98 event served as a strong wake-up call. And, there are good reasons that governments responded the way they did (a war going on, low credibility in the forecast, unclear predictions of impacts of El Niño, etc.). However, awareness of the El Niño phenomenon and what it can do to societies and economies is now high. As we are between El Niño events, the time is right for societies to improve their understanding of the phenomenon and to devise ways to better cope with its potential direct and indirect effects."

Denis Benn, Director of the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, stressed that the study's findings highlight the need to undertake systematic long term risk reduction activities, including better understanding of climate related vulnerability through education and training.

Improve forecasting globally, locally

Onset of El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean provides the earliest warning of upcoming bad weather for many parts of the world. Improved forecasting of El Niño's onset and its impacts could provide authorities in many countries with three to six months lead time to brace against extreme conditions, Dr. Glantz said.

At the moment, there is "a general lack of belief among potential forecast users around the world in the reliability of the forecast," a consequence of several factors, including scientific uncertainties about the El Niño phenomenon and uncertainties about how to use forecasts stated in probabilistic terms, the study found.

Another problem is that scientists and the media tend to refer to El Niño's environmental impacts as if they affect an entire country. Yet, because of typically diverse topographical features, seldom is a whole country affected by the same El Niño-related anomaly. For example, Northern Peru suffers from floods during El Niño while southern Peru usually suffers from drought. Northeast Brazil suffers from severe drought during El Niño while devastating rains and flooding plague southeastern Brazil.

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.

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. This requires education and training of personnel and policy makers and raising awareness of the general public.

Create regional El Niño organizations, map "at risk" populations, other recommendations

According to the study: "Integrated regional El Niño (and La Niña)-related disaster plans can be developed at lower cost than if each country in a region were to go its own way." One such organization already exists within the Permanent Commission of the South Pacific (CPPS), created by four national governments in South America bordering that ocean. Similar organizations are needed for other areas impacted by El Niño.

The study calls for international funding to map "at risk" populations, regions and sectors of society - information essential to strategies for mitigating El Niño's impacts. Identifying such climate-related vulnerabilities can help governments refocus development priorities.

The research teams also found that rivalries among government agencies create needless delays and problems in responding to El Niño. The study recommends that in each country a single government agency coordinate El Niño-related disaster response. Such coordination would involve multiple government branches (including those dealing with agriculture, water, energy, public safety, health, and economic development) and the civil society, including NGOs.

"Affected governments must gear up for El Niño-related emergencies by developing a government unit that is permanent and cuts across various national ministries, agencies and sectors," said Dr. Glantz.

Other key observations and recommendations made by the study teams include:

  • Intervention at the highest level of government is needed to catalyze an appropriate level of response, as was the case in several countries' response to El Niño in 1997-98 (e.g., intervention by the heads of state in Peru, Ecuador, Viet Nam, the Philippines and Ethiopia);

  • All the 16 countries studied lacked adequate human and financial resources for national monitoring and forecasting of extreme climate events spawned by El Niño;

  • A network of floating meteorological data recording stations monitored by satellite is needed in the Indian Ocean - like one established in the Pacific in the late 1980s and early 1990s - to help Africa and the Asia-Pacific region better forecast El Niño's influence on weather-related problems;

  • Top priorities for capacity-building: train researchers to identify a country's "at-risk" populations; educate at-risk public in their preparedness for El Niño-related disasters; train disaster managers to cope with the related problems.

  • Because of its proximity to the occurrence of El Niño, South American and Southeast Asian nations along the Pacific Rim are the hardest hit. The study urges policy makers to consider the El Niño - La Niña cycle as a recurrent event in national planning (civil defense, urban zoning, construction codes) rather than as an anomalous condition.

  • The reliability of El Niño-related forecasts at the local level needs improvement to a point where government agencies take them much more seriously. In this context, human and institutional capacity to undertake scientific research on El Niño needs to be further developed and supported, according to the study.

  • In the Asian Pacific region, better forecasting of El Niño's onset is crucial to help governments cope with short-term emergency conditions and with longer-term economic programs. Well-defined emergency management structures are needed in countries like Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. In geographically diverse countries like Indonesia, it is important that each region with a micro-climate should issue its own forecasts that are locally relevant.

  • Stronger efforts are needed from the meteorological community (weather services, research institutes, universities) to close the gap between scientific research and its application to society and economy. For populous countries such as China this is a daunting challenge. In a country like Fiji, where droughts magnify chronic nutritional problems caused in part by low income, the lack of food and micronutrient deficiencies, improved data collection is needed to identify those most vulnerable to El Niño.

  • The impacts of El Niño in Southeast Asia and their relationship with conditions in the Indian Ocean are not well understood. The studies in Bangladesh and Viet Nam clearly indicate need for improved national forecasting abilities. Governments in the region must strengthen existing scientific and meteorological networks and their linkage to international networks.

  • Impacts of El Niño in eastern Africa are not well understood. This is further compounded by lack of detailed, local forecasts. The most vulnerable areas are those ones with crumbling infrastructure - roads, bridges and buildings constantly in need of repair. The notion of 'fixing the leaky roof while the sun shines' can be applied to investments in maintenance and development of overall infrastructure in this region. This can make a big difference in timely responses to El Niño-like disasters and faster recovery afterwards.

The UN agencies are partnering with NCAR to develop a comprehensive programme of "educating educators" in developing countries. This will particularly address the science, policy and ethics related to climate change, variability, and extremes. UN University, in partnership with NCAR and WMO and support from the ISDR, is seeking donor support to fully develop such a programme.

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