UN agencies release joint report on El Nino

by Mithre J Sandrasagra

New York, 27 Oct 2000 (IPS) -- Developing countries will continue to suffer thousands of deaths and injuries and tens of billions of dollars in economic damage every two to seven years until investments are made in forecasting and preparedness for the El Nino weather phenomenon, a new study warned Friday.

‘Lessons from the 1997-98 El Nino: Once burned, Twice Shy?’, a collaboration of four UN organisations, stresses that more reliable El Nino forecasts and the capability of governments to react quickly to them are critical, especially for the developing world.

“El Nino is not a freak occurrence - it is becoming an increasingly predictable part of the global climate system. We need to accelerate our understanding of it and be better able to deal with its devastating consequences,” said Under-Secretary General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UN University (UNU), which co-authored the report.

The report warns that in the absence of such capabilities, vulnerable populations, infrastructure and economies in many parts of the world will continue to suffer from El Nino’s wrath - floods, fires, drought, cyclones and outbreaks of infectious disease.

An El Nino (Spanish for Christ Child, due to its typical onset in December) event occurs when warm water flows eastward from the warm pool of the western tropical Pacific Ocean and there is a reduction in the upwelling of cold water in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean and along the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Once initiated, an El Nino event typically lasts about one year. It causes a reversal of trade winds and ocean surface currents in the eastern and central Pacific which triggers a low pressure system over parts of South America drawing heat and moisture that would otherwise be distributed in the west Pacific or elsewhere.

The creation of regional organisations to prepare collective responses to El Nino is one of the key recommendations of this $650 million study developed by teams of researchers working in 16 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa - including Bangladesh, China, Ecuador, Cuba, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Paraguay, Peru, and Vietnam.

Other countries included in the study which focused on the most harshly affected countries during the 1997-98 El Nino are Costa Rica, Fiji, Kenya, Mozambique, Panama, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

Regional co-operation is especially important as “El Nino does not respect borders on maps,” Michael Coughlan of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) emphasised in an interview with IPS.

WMO, UNU, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), the International Strategy for Natural Disaster Reduction (ISNDR) and the US-based National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) collaborated on the study.

Many governments do not have the human skills and financial resources to carry out national high-tech monitoring and forecasting based on El Nino’s extreme events, the report says. As a result, it becomes increasingly important for these countries to depend on research outputs from other countries in order to develop national disaster reduction strategies.

Furthermore, many of these developing countries do not have the latest research pertaining to the climate’s influence on society - the study therefore encourages trust-building measures be taken between these countries and climate related “information donors”.

Developing countries must be empowered to apply the information they get from outside sources locally, Godwin O.P. Obasi, Secretary-General of WMO told reporters Friday.

Governments must support programmes that will create personnel who can understand and use information derived from the monitoring and forecasting process, as well as to disseminate this information in a practical, simply understood manner in rural areas, Zafar Adell of UNU told IPS.

Transparency or openness, as it relates to El Nino, can increase trust among governments, government agencies, scientists, forecasters and the public. At the very least it can create awareness as well as educate, alert and prepare people for the risks they may face from El Nino-related climatic anomalies. Coughlan emphasised that the “only way to increase trust is to improve [the] data gathering infrastructure so that we can provide the best possible forecasting”.

Furthermore, we need to be “open and honest about the quality of our forecasts”, he added. Recognising the value of a well-designed network of recording stations to collect meteorological information, each of the 16 country-study teams has called for improving weather and climate monitoring in their regions.

Great value was seen in establishing a network of fixed buoys in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, similar to the one set up in the equatorial Pacific during the mid-1990s as scientists now realise that changes in temperatures in the Indian Ocean can influence, if not overshadow, the expected impacts of an El Nino in some regions in Asia and Africa.  Much of the variability in current El Nino forecasting is due to the lack of data concerning the changes occurring in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, Coughlan said.

Maintaining the current data collection system set up in the Pacific Ocean costs $100 million every year - a burden taken up mainly by the United States and Japan.

Approximately $210 million is necessary for systems to be set up in the other oceans, Coughlan said. However, he pointed out that the cost of “the damage wreaked by the single 1997-98 El Nino event - estimated at between $36 and $96 billion - far outreaches the cost of the early warning system that could also be utilised for secondary functions such as monsoon variability forecasting, and drought prediction, etc”.

But lack of funding has been identified as one of the major factors contributing to lack of preparedness.

The study calls for international funding to map “at risk” populations, regions and sectors of society - identifying climate-related vulnerabilities can help governments refocus development priorities.

One of the major problems highlighted in all 16 country studies were rivalries among certain government agencies which create needless delays and problems in responding to El Nino. The study recommends that each country create a single government agency to co-ordinate El Nino-related disaster response and preparation.

Since 1998 the international community has been attempting to establish an international centre for the study of the El Nino phenomenon in Guayaquil, Ecuador. This centre would eliminate the persistent problem of conflicting forecasts, highlighted by the study.

With increasing growth of the internet, users are bombarded with scores of interpretations and predictions about the future state of sea surface temperatures and it is growing more and more difficult to find reliable information.

The UN General Assembly has passed many resolutions urging member states to provide the necessary financial assistance for such a project, the latest of these being on Oct. 20, 2000.

“We are still awaiting donors,” Obasi told IPS.