Scientist inspects signs of severe drought due to El Niño in rice fields in Ba Tri district, Ben Tre, Vietnam. Photo by: Leo Sebastian / CCAFS SEA / CC BY-SA

ABIDJAN — The United Kingdom’s aid agency is preparing for a looming El Niño weather phenomenon, which could cause widespread flooding and drought across several regions and increase the likelihood of humanitarian assistance needs.

“By having a detailed understanding of the potential impacts of El Niño, we can better identify how to deliver aid to those most in need.”

— Charlotte Watts, chief scientist, DFID

The Department for International Development is using El Niño forecasts shared by the U.K. national meteorological service, or Met Office, to improve its capabilities to respond at speed and scale to any upcoming extreme weather events.

Current weather predictions estimate that an El Niño event is more than 80 percent likely within the next three months, experts told reporters during a briefing earlier this week — with Southeast Asia under severe threat of drought, and Central and South America also likely to be affected.

“By having a detailed understanding of the potential impacts of El Niño, we can better identify how to deliver aid to those most in need, saving lives and reducing the humanitarian impact on affected communities by acting earlier,” Charlotte Watts, chief scientist at DFID, said during the phone conference.

The aid agency has been receiving monthly updates from the weather service to both prepare teams on the ground in supported countries and mobilize resources, because “prevention is better than cure,” Watts added. The “granularity in the information that the Met Office provides also allows for increasing potential for joint collaboration” to predict possible flood-related health outbreaks, such as cholera, or food security levels, she explained.

The 2015-16 El Niño event contributed to a spike in the number of Australian bushfires and a regional drought declaration by the Southern African Development Community, which were worsened by late humanitarian response. Since then, DFID has increased its communication with country offices to better plan for the next occurrence.

“Country offices are often equipped with programs to address any risks that they might face, so now they can use this [weather] information to think through what they can be doing to support livelihoods in this situation based on the time of year of its occurrence — whether food assistance will be needed because of a delayed rainy season, etcetera,” a DFID official noted.

During an El Niño event, there is a rise in sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, influencing air and moisture movement across the globe. The recurrent event typically centralizes in the central-east Pacific Ocean, and in the past has produced droughts in southern and eastern Australia and unseasonably heavy rains from South America to California.

While actual conditions and what to expect remain largely unknown as the El Niño event continues, the Met Office’s use of supercomputers — which process billions of weather observations daily and create complex climate predictions — hopes to facilitate a more punctual DFID response, if needed.

The World Meteorological Organization expects “a weak to moderate event,” but Watts says any nonlinearity in climate may be classified as minor “but still have a much larger impact on populations,” such as pushing agriculture-reliant communities into extreme poverty because of prolonged dry seasons or flood and mudslide-related deaths.

About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.

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