The 2015/2016 El Niño, one of the strongest on record, has died out and is expected to be replaced by a weak to moderate La Niña event later this year, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas told a UN conference.
The conference, organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, was intended to boost the humanitarian response to El Niño. More than 60 million people worldwide, about 40 million in East and Southern Africa alone, are projected to be food insecure due to the impact of El Niño.
The heads of the three Rome-based UN agencies urged greater preparedness to deal with the possible occurrence later this year of a La Niña climate event, which will also impact on agriculture and food security.
El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of the air-sea interaction collectively referred to as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The 2015/2016 El Niño contributed to drought in southern Africa and some parts of the Horn of Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, and Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Viet Nam. It was to blame for floods in parts of South America including Paraguay, Peru and Argentina.
La Niña has the opposite effect – although no two events are the same and other climatic factors also influence weather patterns.
“Now we are expecting to go a La Niña phase from September to December this year and it and it will have the reverse impact of El Niño,” said Mr Taalas. “But it will also have an impact on food security in Africa, in southern parts of Asia and in tropical Latin America,” he said.
El Niño – which has a general warming influence - had fuelled record temperatures in 2015 and the first part of 2016, said Mr Taalas. Temperatures are expected to remain well above average in the coming months regardless of any cooling La Niña because of the human-induced global warming from record levels of greenhouse gases, he said.
Mr Taalas said that advances in climate science have increased the accuracy and reach of climate predictions for seasons and years ahead. WMO will step up efforts to improve the reliability of observations in the oceans, which still lag behind the atmospheric ones.
UN Special Envoy for El Niño and Climate, Ambassador Macharia Kamau said: "It is clear that these types of extreme weather events are stressing already-vulnerable communities, threatening to undermine development gains of recent decades and impede achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals."
“El Niño and La Niña are slow onset emergencies. When you have a flood or an earthquake, it is dramatic and catches the imagination of the world. A slow onset emergency is like a cancer. It slowly creeps up on you and decimates lives and livelihoods,” he said.
The meeting called for action to recover agricultural livelihoods that have been severely damaged by the droughts associated with El Niño. Acting now will ensure that farmers have sufficient levels of agricultural inputs for upcoming planting seasons.
Participants also emphasized the need to mitigate the negative impacts and capitalize on positive opportunities of a likely La Niña phenomenon in the coming months. This means acting decisively to prepare for above-average rainfall in some areas and potential drought conditions in others.
FAO press release is available here