David Dudenhoefer Monday, Feb. 1, 2016
The global weather event known as El Niño has been blamed for droughts in Central America and northern South America and record-breaking floods in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. But some scientists warn that the worst could be yet to come. El Niño poses major challenges for Latin America’s governments, some of which are in the midst of economic and political crises. The weather phenomenon is also testing their ability to face the growing threat of climate change, now and in the future.
El Niño has a particular significance for Latin America. It was supposedly named by a Peruvian fisherman, who called it El Niño—the Spanish term for Baby Jesus—since it resulted in abnormally warm water and poor fishing around Christmas. Because its epicenter is in the Pacific Ocean to the west of Ecuador and Peru, those two countries have suffered widespread destruction during past El Niños. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated that the 1997-1998 episode—the most destructive on record—caused $6.35 billion of damage to homes, infrastructure and crops in Peru and Ecuador alone. However, those two countries have so far suffered little damage this time around.
Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay have not been so lucky. In the most dramatic weather event to hit South America during the current El Niño, weeks of heavy rains and flooding in December forced more than 150,000 people from their homes in those three countries. At the same time, vast areas of Colombia and Venezuela have suffered El Niño-driven drought, with two of Colombia’s most important rivers, the Cauca and the Magdalena, dropping to their lowest levels in decades.
El Niño could be a wake-up call for Latin American governments to strengthen their capacity to prepare for and deal with extreme weather.
Meanwhile, Central America has already endured two consecutive years of drought that has affected more than 2.8 million people, causing crop failures and food shortages in parts of Guatemala and Honduras.
News that Pacific Ocean temperatures declined for much of November and December initially raised hopes that this El Niño would wind down quickly. But according to Rodney Martinez, director of the International Center for El Niño Research, or CIIFEN by its Spanish acronym, which is based in Guayaquil, Ecuador, temperatures in the eastern Pacific began to rise again in January, indicating that it is far from over. Martinez says he believes this El Niño is only about half over, adding that the situation is complicated by the fact that January to March are the hottest months in the Southern Hemisphere and that 2015 was the hottest year on Earth ever recorded. “This is a unique situation that we have never experienced before,” Martinez says.
The good news is that scientists know a lot about the dynamics of El Niño events, and South America’s meteorologists are in a better position than ever to monitor the climate and predict extreme weather events, thanks to decades of improvements to technology and capacity, as well as greater coordination between countries. Yet Martinez notes that the willingness and ability of governments to act upon such warnings has varied significantly from one country to the next.
He cites Peru as one of the most active countries in managing the risks posed by El Niño. Over the past year, Peru’s Civil Defense Institute identified more than 100 vulnerable areas—primarily in the northern part of the country—and invested more than $1 million in efforts to prepare for the heavy rains that El Niño is expected to bring. The banks of rivers prone to flooding have been fortified, and the government has distributed more than 1,000 temporary bridges across regions where flooding might destroy cement bridges.
Though it has historically been one of the nations hardest hit by El Niño, Peru is in a better position than many of its neighbors to face this one thanks to more than a decade of strong economic growth. Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela, on the other hand, are mired in or sliding into recession, which limits their ability to cope with extreme weather events. However, many of Latin America’s deficiencies in facing the risks of El Niño predate the current economic crisis, Martinez says. Those deficiencies also bode poorly for the region’s ability to deal with the increasingly frequent extreme weather events that scientists say climate change will bring.
“One of the realities of Latin America is that despite the scientific advancements and greater access to information, one thing that hasn’t changed is the level of vulnerability: the vulnerability of our productive systems, our populations, the fragility of public institutions charged with research, preparation, or responding to disasters,” Martinez says. “This vulnerability is growing as we face a climate that is becoming increasingly erratic and dangerous.”
The silver lining to El Niño could be that it serves as a wake-up call that convinces Latin American governments to strengthen their capacity to prepare for and deal with extreme weather. But Martinez laments that some countries are cutting the budgets of the very institutions responsible for monitoring and dealing with El Niño. And while officials have made public commitments to mitigate and adapt to climate change at international meetings such as the COP21 climate talks in Paris last December, their administrations have been slow to act on them at home.
“If the governments don’t seriously approach climate risk management and adaption to climate change, we will be facing a major threat to development that we won’t be able to resolve through ad-hoc measures and declaring states of emergency,” Martínez warns. “It will threaten the very structures of development, especially in Latin America.”
Whether the current El Niño is as destructive as the 1997-1998 episode won’t be determined until after this one winds down. Nevertheless, climate scientists warn that the risk of extreme whether events will only grow, during and between El Niño events. The lingering question is whether governments facing economic crises will invest enough in their ability to monitor and prepare for future climate threats, or whether the need to cut budgets today will result in even greater losses tomorrow.
David Dudenhoefer is a freelance journalist based in Lima, Peru, from where he covers much of South America.