El Niño: What Is It And Why Does It Matter?

A quick guide to help you understand what El Niño is, why it can't be neglected and what the World Food Programme (WFP) is doing to respond.

El Niño: The science

El Niño is nothing new for the fishermen of Peru and Ecuador. In fact, they have known about it for centuries, which is little surprise given that the fish in the area vanish every three to seven years, bringing their livelihoods to a halt.

So why does this happen? Put simply, El Niño is a weather pattern that results from a warming of sea temperatures in the equatorial pacific every three to seven years. These warmer temperatures cause hot air to rise – resulting in a disruption to global weather patterns. 

One of the first knock-on effects of this is that fish either die or migrate to areas where they’ll find more to eat. 

But the effects of El Niño don’t stop here.

Photo:WFP/Guled Mohamed

El Niño: Why it matters

El Niño causes changes in rainfall and temperature across the world, affecting crops and pasture development in many areas where WFP works. These altered weather patterns can cause severe droughts in parts of Asia, whilst simultaneously causing heavy flooding in East Africa. 

Not only can such extreme weather make a humanitarian emergency more likely, it can also jeopardize people’s ability to produce and buy food. The impact will be felt most by communities that are already reliant on humanitarian aid and who are already struggling to cope by skipping meals, selling assets and pulling their children out of school to work.

El Niño isn’t all bad though. More rain caused by El Niño in the Horn of Africa may bring welcome relief to some pastoralists during what would usually be their ‘short rains’ season. However this is tempered by an increased risk of floods in Kenya and Somalia, and the likelihood of poor rains in other parts of east Africa. 

The effects of El Niño are different each time but this one is being cited as one of the strongest on record. Scientists say that the event now underway is sending sea temperatures in parts of the Pacific to levels not seen since the late 1990s.


El Niño: Who is most at risk?

Many communities around the world are already feeling the impact of El Niño. In Central America, people living in the Dry Corridor from Guatemala to Nicaragua, are suffering a second consecutive year of drought, which has meant extensive crop losses for many. 

At least 1.5 million people will struggle to access food in Zimbabwe following a poor harvest in April, which was caused by prolonged dry spells.

In Somalia, severe food and water shortages are a result of El Niño-triggered drought in the North West and flooding in the southern and central areas. Livestock deaths have so far plunged over 10,000 families into destitution.

WFP: Preparedness is key

WFP is closely monitoring the current El Niño and preparing for the possible repercussions for poorer communities around the world and their ability to access food. 
With natural disasters on the increase, WFP knows that preparedness is key. A new global WFP tool will ensure money is readily available locally if a climate-related risk is likely to occur – meaning a quicker response to affected communities. 

Additionally, WFP has also been able to produce informative and easy-to-understand weather alerts with Met offices and local government partners. This information includes anything from where to take your cattle in the event of a flood, to best food storage options during wet weather or suggested crops to plant in certain climates.

Photo:WFP/Argon Dragaj

WFP innovations help build the resilience of vulnerable households to climate risks. Our R4 Rural Resilience Initiative in Malawi, Zambia, Ethiopia and Senegal protects communities against drought by combining insurance, savings, livelihood diversification and disaster risk reduction. Protected by insurance, households no longer need to take drastic measures if and when crops fail, building their resilience over time.

For those areas already affected, WFP is working with communities to help them back on their feet. In drought affected areas like Zimbabwe, cash assistance for the most vulnerable has the double advantage of giving choice to families as well as injecting cash into the local economy. 

Our friends at WFPUSA recently sat down with Richard Choularton, head of WFP’s Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction Programmes Unit. Take a look at what he had to say.