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Asia-Pacific Analysis: Prepare for El Niño now
  • Asia-Pacific Analysis: Prepare for El Niño now

Copyright: Jacob Silberberg / Panos

Speed read

  • Climate experts predict onset of a moderate El Niño as early as August

  • The phenomenon causes drought and water shortages in affected areas

  • To mitigate El Niño’s impact, governments can start strategic plans now

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A bit of good news lately for Pacific island nations and South-East Asian countries. They might face a moderate El Niño instead of a very strong one.
 
Climate forecasters say there is a 60-70 per cent chance for a moderate El Niño to come in the next two months, from August to September. If present trends continue, the probability of its onset will rise to 75-80 per cent in the last quarter of 2014.
 
As of mid-June, the climate model outlook plotted by the World Meteorological Organization showed a continued warming of the central and eastern half of the Pacific Ocean surface just above and below the equator, with peak strength expected late in the year. [1]
 
El Nino’s impact
 
This anomalous warm southward current in the western and mid-Pacific usually comes in December and lasts for months, reversing the normal northward cool current driven by the southeast trade winds which cause the upwelling of cool, nutrient-rich water that provide food for the fishes.
 
When the southeast trade winds weaken, the ocean current reverses, pushed south this time by the northeast trade winds.
 
The term El Niño reportedly originated in the eighteenth century when Peruvian sailors in South America used it to describe a warm southward sea current that appeared from time to time around Christmas off the Peruvian coast. Hence, the Spanish name El Niño, referring to the Christ Child. The phenomenon comes at irregular intervals of two to seven years.
 
A major impact of El Niño is drought and water shortages in the central Pacific, particularly in American Samoa, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu. [2]
 
Since Pacific island countries rely on agriculture for food and employment, extreme dry weather threatens food security as it has during recent El Niño phenomena. Drought affects the adaptation responses of the mini-forests on these tiny island nations where vegetation grows slowly.
 
Since drought brings water shortages, the first step for these Pacific island countries should be management of water resources — build dams, water catchments and underground reservoirs and plan water rationing. Because droughts affect agriculture, farmers must plant dry land crops that do not need much water to survive. Also, these island states need to stock up on reserves of grain and fuel oil.

Preparing in South-East Asia

Pacific countries can follow the example of Malaysia, which organised a national committee to address the El Niño phenomenon even if only a moderate version is expected.

The committee is working on government preparations that include short-, medium- and long-term measures to ensure efficient irrigation management, boost plantation management efficiency and develop drought resistant and quick maturing crop species. [3]

Conscious of a drought’s impact on the country’s palm industry, the Malaysian National Water Services Commission has urged water service operators and stakeholders to prepare for a water crisis this early, telling them to monitor water levels in rivers and dams and continue cloud seeding.

Malaysia has also activated a water supply contingency plan if water levels in rivers and dams go down to a critical stage. This includes additional water supply facilities such as building tanks in areas likely to face shortage, identifying possible alternative raw water sources and implementing a water rationing system in case of shortage.
 
The Philippine government, meanwhile, has issued warnings about the coming drought. There will still be normal rainfall until September, but less rains in the southern part of the country starting October, and possibly until March 2015, according to its weather bureau. It is urging production of rice varieties that are tolerant to drought, and initiatives in water management and conservation measures.
 
The Philippine Department of Science and Technology has warned that El Niño may also trigger stronger storms. Some of the most devastating typhoons occurred during El Niño years, such as Typhoon Xangsane (September 2006) and Typhoons Ketsana (September 2009) and Parma (October 2009).
 
Serious impact in Indonesia
 
Expect the most devastating regional impact of El Niño in Indonesia. A prolonged drought brought by El Niño will not only damage the country’s palm industry but also exacerbate Indonesia’s devastating forest fires.
 
The recent forest fires evoked memories of Indonesia's 1997 conflagrations triggered by the 1997-1998 El Niño phenomenon. Those fires were considered the worst ever making Indonesia the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States.
 
Unfortunately, after last year’s fires, Indonesia still has not done enough to minimise, if not eliminate the fires and their causes and now a new El Niño that might approximate the severity of the 1997-98 phenomenon is upon us.
 
We do not want to go into the bureaucratic finger-pointing as to who are responsible for the illegal fires. The burden lies ultimately on the Indonesian government and public opinion must move it to act.
 
With a new democratically elected Indonesian government, perhaps the time is ripe for mobilising public opinion. The ASEAN community must come in and push the Indonesian government to act decisively on this problem.

We reiterate what we said last year: Indonesia must be open and take responsibility for the environmental time bomb ticking as a result of these forest fires. With another El Niño coming, the time to act is now.
 
 
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
 
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.



References

[1] WMO El Niño/La Niña Update, Current Situation and Outlook, 26 June 2014
http://www.wmo.int/pages/members /members_en.html
 
[2] Source: Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Email: [email protected]
 
[3] Government Discusses Preparation To Ensure Adequate Food Supplies To Face El Nino, Bernama, 30 June 2014.
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