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FAO: El Niño 2018-19

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High risk countries and potential impacts on food security and agriculture

In view of the potential impact of the 2018/19 El Niño on food security and agriculture, high risk countries in Southern Africa, Horn of Africa, Asia and the Pacific and Latin America should be prioritized for further monitoring, analysis and early action.

This Advisory on the 2018/19 El Niño, issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), provides a historical impact overview and latest forecasts for a better understanding of the El Niño patterns and its potential effects on the agricultural sector in the different regions globally. It also offers specific early action recommendations to promote the understanding that impacts of El Niño can be mitigated before they generate large scale food security emergencies.

What is El Niño?

El Niño is a recurrent global atmospheric-oceanic phenomenon associated with an increase in sea surface temperatures in the central tropical Pacific Ocean and a sustained weakening of the trade winds. An El Niño event develops approximately every two to seven years and lasts anywhere from 6 to 24 months.

A global El Niño event is declared after the central Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere show signs of certain atypical conditions for a prolonged period of time, usually over a period of three months. Even if an El Niño event does not fully develop, sea surface temperatures and other large-scale climatic patterns can be put into motion, potentially driving extreme weather events in certain areas of the globe.

An El Niño event increases the risk of heavy rainfall and flooding in some parts of the world, while in others, it increases the risk of drought through reduced rainfall. The impact of El Niño on agriculture and food security can be severe. For example, the 2015/16 El Niño – one of the strongest on record – affected over 60 million people worldwide, resulting in 23 countries appealing for international humanitarian assistance worth over USD 5 billion.

The extent of impact of El Niño on agriculture and food security depends on a complex interplay of meteorological, seasonality and vulnerability factors.
As a result, impact patterns of global El Niño events are variable and do not necessarily materialize during every occurrence. While there is generally a relationship between the global impacts of El Niño/La Niña events and their intensity, there is always potential for even a weak or moderate event to generate serious impacts in some regions. To address this uncertainty, it is therefore crucial to consult regional and national early warning systems for a systematic analysis of weather forecasts, vulnerabilities and potential risks.