El Niño Could Be a Disaster for the Poor

The growing certainty that the weather phenomenon known as El Niño will soon arrive could spell disaster for the world's poor and threaten shaky governments in the throes of the global economic downturn.

The Australia Bureau of Meteorology said in a report last week that, "More evidence of a developing El Niño event has emerged during the past fortnight, and computer forecasts show there's very little chance of the development stalling or reversing."

This is very bad news for agriculture as El Niño is expected to hurt crops. In October 2008, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Office estimated that 965 million people were starving worldwide, with 16,000 children dying every day from hunger-related causes. As food prices soared in 2007 and 2008, the FAO estimated that the number of undernourished people rose by 75 million.

According to an FAO briefing paper published in September 2008, China and India alone account for 42 percent of the chronically hungry people in the developing world. If the current changing ocean temperatures in the so-called Southern Oscillation continue to rise, a lot more will go hungry. Wheat yields in India, the world's third-largest producer, are expected to drop dramatically.

In the three most recent major El Niños, the price of palm oil, which accounts for more than 30 percent of world edible oil production, spiked upwards by 216 percent, 150 percent and 16.3 percent respectively. In the 1983 and 1997 El Niños, palm oil yields fell by 10.5 percent and 16.3 percent respectively. The weather phenomenon hit sugar cane production in Thailand in 1997-1998, but was offset by positive performance in Brazil, Pakistan and Australia although prices fluctuated wildly, skyrocketing from US12¢ per pound in October 1997 to US72¢ in September 1998, a six-fold increase. Indonesia, which is just coming into its own as a sugar producer, can be expected to be hit by dry climactic conditions.

The Southern Oscillation describes the movement of air masses between the Pacific Ocean and the land masses of Australia, Indonesia and the other nations of Southeast Asia. El Niños occur when the trade winds over Southeast Asia start to slow. Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand – the world's biggest rice exporter ‑ can expect to experience reduced rainfall and hotter temperatures. In the most recent El Niño in the 1990s, corn and rice yields in the Philippines fell because of localized dryness.

The warming body of water rolls slowly across the equatorial Pacific Ocean and eventually hits the west coast of North and South America. The question is whether this time around the phenomenon will be bigger than usual. Although they occur every three to five years, less severe El Niños generally do not have a major impact on food prices, but major ones, which occur about once in a decade, can wreak havoc. There has not been a major occurrence since 1997-1998. Each major one over the past three decades has been more severe than the last, possibly due to global warming.

When Asia Sentinel first wrote about the subject in April, weather researchers monitoring Pacific Ocean temperatures were unsure whether the phenomenon was beginning to take place although temperatures were beginning to rise. Now, however, according to the World Meteorological Organization, an arm of the United Nations, the risk is growing, with sea surface temperatures along the Equatorial Pacific having begun to warm significantly, rising from about 1degree Celsius colder than normal to about 0.5C warmer than average.

The WMO is somewhat more cautious than the Australian weather office. "With substantially warmer than normal waters just beneath the surface of the ocean, most expert interpretation and dynamic prediction models consider the current situation favorable for El Niño development," the WMO said in its latest update in late June. "Some uncertainty remains though, as the necessary ocean-atmosphere coupling which amplifies and maintains El Niño is not established yet."

More confident projections are expected over the next two months "which should more clearly prescribe whether El Niño or neutral conditions will prevail in the second half of 2009," the WMO said.

In India, however, the risk is already rising that the annual monsoon, which has a crucial impact on food production, may fail. The country received 45 percent less rain than normal in June, which is almost certain to hinder the prospects of recovery from the global economic downturn. Water stocks in 81 key reservoirs are only 10 percent of full reservoir capacity, the government said in June.

On the other side of the earth, in Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea, seasonal rains have diminished sharply. Kenya and other parts of East Africa already face one of the worst food crises in recent times, according to Irin, a news service connected to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.

"We are closely monitoring the relation of these developments with El Niño," Irin said. In Southern Africa, "the 2009 main maize season harvest has just been concluded, so we do not expect any immediate effects," Irin quoted Liliana Balbi, a senior economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, as saying. However, the 2010 season faces risk.

In the Eastern Pacific, along the coasts of North and South America, the opposite is taking place. Waters along the Peruvian Coast are beginning to show signs of warming, meaning substantially increased rainfall and the possibility of rising seafood catches. Salmon production in major El Nino events in the Pacific Northwest is expected to increase dramatically.

California has already begun to feel the effect. Steve Goldstein, a National Weather Service Office forecaster in Sacramento, said the National Weather Service had experienced one of the state's biggest June totals in recent history for lightning strikes, totaling over 10,000. But compared to June 2008, one of the worst Junes for fires, there were relatively few in 2009 because of warm, wet weather kept forest regions relatively moist.

In past El Niños, the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, held in place by a vast series of dams and levees, have come perilously close to overflowing their banks.

Given the world's fragile food balance, major weather occurrences, such the tropical cyclones that hit Bangladesh and Burma in 2007 and 2008, can cause prices to spike sharply. For instance, even without a major disruption from an El Niño, from November 2007 to April 2008, the world price of rice skyrocketed from about US$350 per metric ton to as much as US$1,100 although some governments couldn't buy it at any price. The Philippines had to withdraw a rice tender in April 2008 because of high prices and lack of supply. Food riots occurred in 31 countries and brought down the always-fragile government in Haiti.