Guest Blog: Better be ready, as El Niño may strike soon

By Emily Wilkinson, Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute

I was working as a journalist in Peru in 1999 in the aftermath of the 1997-98 El Niño and saw the devastation first hand. Heading north from Lima, the flood damage to houses was very visible. Large sections of road were cut off by landslides, buildings were turned to rubble and cultivated fields laid to waste.

Rising sea surface temperatures suggest that another El Niño is on its way. The UN's weather agency, the World Meteorological Organisation, says there is a 60% chance of it starting before September this year. An El Niño event usually happens every five years, but a severe one hits every 15 to 20 years, so we are due for another.

The El Niño Southern Oscillation, to give it its full title, is characterised by higher water temperatures in equatorial regions of the Pacific Ocean that lead to changes in wind patterns. This has widespread effects, from higher-than-normal rainfall in the Americas, to droughts in India and Australia and heavy snowfall in the UK. If a severe El Niño hits this year it would bring heavy rainfall to South America in December. A lot still needs to be done to protect lives and livelihoods and the next four months are critical.

In Peru, local governments have identified flood control channels and embankment projects that would help minimise losses. This is really encouraging. A recent report published recently by UNDP and ODI says local governments should come up with their own risk management projects and seek support to implement them. But national government bureaucracy in Peru is holding things up. In the border province of Piura, 115 small projects have been identified to prevent flooding and landslides, but none have received funding yet and local officials are getting nervous. There are even calls for the National Public Investment System to relax its rules so projects can start immediately. 
Landslide in Aguas Calientes, Peru (Huldah/Wikimedia Commons)

In neighbouring Ecuador there are problems that may take longer to fix. Disaster risks are not addressed in 90% of Ecuador’s municipal development plans, said a source in a provincial planning department. This means that buildings keep going up in high-risk areas.

Despite these issues, much has changed in South America since 1998. I would expect the overall impact of a severe El Niño to be less. Banks across South America are in better financial shape this year to deal with the costs than in the past, according to Moody's Investors Service. Over the last decade, economic growth, poverty reduction and disaster risk governance  reforms have made Peru and Ecuador more resilient to climate extremes. At the Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas last month, Ecuador’s Minister of Defence María Fernanda Espinosa, spoke of ‘constant improvements in practices, laws and standards for risk reduction’.

Scientists now know a lot more about the phenomenon and can give advance warning of the kind of El Niño event that is expected. I spoke to UNDP Peru’s Alfredo Zerga, who said that a lot can be done to prepare for a severe El Niño now. Families can find out if their home is in a flood-prone area as all local governments have risk maps, and they can identify points that are higher than the surrounding topography. These actions will certainly help save lives.

So how will South America fare when the next severe El Niño hits? Thanks to strong economic performance, political will and decentralisation of risk management, we have come a long way since 1999, but populations are still at risk and urgent action is needed.