El Niño - a badly-behaved child demands attention
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CTA. 1998. El Niño - a badly-behaved child demands attention. Spore 75. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/48082
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore75.pdf
If there was a cup given for being the most-talked-about aspect of the weather, the El Niño phenomenon would win it this year. It comes at a time when climate change is being seen more and more as part of daily life
If there was a cup given for being the most-talked-about aspect of the weather, the El Niño phenomenon would win it this year. It comes at a time when climate change is being seen more and more as part of daily life (see Viewpoint in Spore 74). El Niño is the name given to the warming of the Pacific waters every few years off the west coast of South America, and the phenomenon has been observed for several hundred years. Typically it occurs around Christmas time, hence the name 'El Niño,' Spanish for 'the baby boy'. The cause of El Niño is not fully understood, but the effects are well documented. The main consequence is to cause precipitation patterns around the world (mainly in the tropics) to shift. Regions that are normally quite wet (such as the Indonesian archipelago) experience drought while other places that are normally dry (such as the Galapagos islands) experience unusually wet conditions. The recent El Niño has been blamed for an ever-growing list of calamities: drought and fires in the Philippines, floods in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya; tornadoes in the Caribbean, famine in Papua New Guinea and Sudan. From the slopes of the Andes mountains to Japan, passing through southern Africa, El Niño has upset the seasons. The particularly severe and long-term effects of the latest El Niño winds caused massive problems for farmers, traders, health workers, and consumers across the globe, and more of the same is expected in the future. Countries with weak infrastructure are more affected, as is always the case with natural disasters, but there appears to be some hope for alleviating the worst effects of the adverse weather by good advance planning and the use of forecasting systems. Experts estimate that for this season El Niño has caused billions of dollars worth of damage, the loss of crops, and has led to higher food prices. Its effect on trade has been clear in some countries: heavy rains in Kenya curtailed production of fine beans, a high return export, but Uganda and Bangladesh benefited when importers had to seek alternative supplies. Mango crops were washed away by heavy rains in Central and South America but Puerto Rico in the Caribbean began its harvest six weeks earlier because the warm weather encouraged early flowering and fruit production. South Africa's dry season meant good production and fewer disease problems. The Kenya Tea Development Authority advised farmers to take advantage of the higher returns possible following El Niño rains, which had increased tea production. In many places where the changes brought more water, pests and diseases flourished. Nairobi fly and Rift Valley Fever erupted in parts of East Africa and El Niño was blamed for swarms of locust in Madagascar. The effect on cattle, goats and people in Kenya was severe, with hundreds of deaths reported, after floods isolated a normally accessible arid part of the country. Forewarned is forearmed Better planning can help. Earlier this year, the Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister in South Africa said that he was not overly worried about El Niño but more concerned about whether farmers and the agricultural sector in general were prepared for disasters ? they should not assume that the government had a huge pot of money to bail them out. The correct approach is to plan ahead to meet the disasters, he said, and many farmers had already taken the initiative through careful financial planning, corrections for marketing, appropriate choice of land on which to plant and careful choice of cultivars in consideration of El Niño. A global atlas has been produced by the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI), together with the Government of Japan and the University of Utah, to help identify the agroclimatic conditions appropriate to specific crops. As water becomes more scarce, the IIMI believes the atlas will be of increasing use in identifying appropriate crops for specific areas. Researchers elsewhere, working with farmers in South America using long-term forecasting to help plan crop husbandry activities, have already yielded promising results. El Niño has been blamed for events that are sometimes unrelated anomalies ? its bad behaviour seems to be helping to focus efforts across a wide front of activity, sometimes outside the scope of the phenomenon everyone loves to hate. Maybe the Zimbabwean tease about El Niño ? El Nonsense, they call it ? in some cases, rings true. World Water and Climate Atlas for Agriculture, International Irrigation Management Institute P O Box 2075 Colombo Sri Lanka. Website: http://atlas.usu.edu/