The El Niño threat to food security

This year’s El Niño is comparatively weak to that of 2015 and 2016, but several high-risk countries from around the world suffer greatly, particularly the most vulnerable sector. We have to understand better what El Niño brings.

El Niño is a recurrent global atmospheric-oceanic phenomenon which indicates an increase in sea surface temperature (SST) in the central tropical Pacific Ocean and a sustained weakening of the trade winds. El Niño’s large-scale climatic patterns can be felt largely around the globe with varying impacts, and potentially driving extreme weather events which result in a cycle of climate-induced food crises.

High risk countries

An El Niño event increases the risk for heavy rainfall and flooding in other parts of the world. For others, it increases the risk of drought and further reduced rainfall. This reality is being felt in many countries in Asia and the Pacific, Africa and Latin America, to name a few.

The impact of El Niño on agriculture and food security can be severe especially to countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia in Africa, Afghanistan, the Pacific Islands of Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Sri Lanka and the Philippines for Asia and the Pacific. El Niño’s climatic overdrive also impacts the Latin American region where countries like Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela suffer from prolonged drought conditions and flooding. While there are many more countries suffering multiple challenges, the level of uncertainty differs every year. No two events of El Niño or La Niña are the same.

For example, the 2015/2016 El Niño event – one of the strongest in living memory – affected over 60 million people worldwide, resulting in 23 countries appealing for international humanitarian assistance worth over USD 5 billion, according to the United Nations (UN). The extent of El Niño impacts on a global scale is both mind-boggling as it is costly, and this depends on a country’s vulnerability factors, its capacity to react during every occurrence of El Niño and La Niña events. These climatic threats can lead to massive crop production losses, which in turn can result in malnutrition, hunger, or starvation of the most vulnerable.  Crop damage

In the Philippines, most of farm plantings run in three cycles every year, particularly palay production. With dry spell and drought conditions already in place as early as December last year, several areas of Luzon and Mindanao have suffered significantly.. This has negatively affected yields of the late 2018 season. The 2019 cropping season, on the other hand, may also take a beating with the current dwindling water supply. This could result in further losses in the agriculture and livestock sectors.

Recent government data shows that crop damage reached PHP 5 billion. This, according to the Department of Agriculture (DA), accounts for the country’s staple, rice, including corn. And this could go on in the coming months, with the hot-dry season lasting until the end of May. The country’s state weather bureau PAGASA also predicts that the recent dry spell and drought conditions will continue well into May, with a gradual easing trend by late June and July when the rains start to set in. While the impact of this year’s weak El Niño event is not yet over, people and government have to take the necessary measures to mitigate its ill-effects to the economic viability of the agriculture sector.


Latest ENSO Update

The recently issued International Research Institute (IRI) El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Forecast maintains a weak El Niño until April. This means that the sea surface temperature (SST) is well within the range of an ongoing weak El Niño. Both the atmosphere and the weather patterns support this, and collective model forecasts are seen to continue well through 2019. Experts from PAGASA’s Hydrology and Climate Forecasting division also lamented last March 23 that a delay in the arrival of the rains in June may aggravate the lack of water supply, particularly in several dams in Luzon, although mitigating measures can still be done to address this problem.

The varying cycles and impacts of El Niño and La Niña events are hard to predict as they are complex. However, there are small incremental steps various sectors of the global community can take in order to stave off huge losses associated with these complex meteorological and seasonal vulnerability threats to global food security. An early warning system is one, and local climate adaptation measures can be put into place to address this problem and identify vulnerabilities and potential risks. It does pay to be #WeatherWiser!

Interested about being #WeatherWiser? Contact us at

–By Adonis S. Manzan

Typhoon Specialist, WeatherPhilippines Foundation, Inc.

23 April 2019


©2019 WeatherPhilippines Foundation


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