CLIMATE CHANGE

Are we ready for global climate upheaval?

Impact of 2019 El Nino could be orders of magnitude larger than the last big El Nino, in 1997-98

In Summary
  • While the El Nino phenomenon is not new, experts agree that the intensity of the 2019 event is unprecedented.
  • The 2019 El Nino is causing raging floods, which are wreaking havoc; wiping out crops and livestock, causing deadly landslides and annihilating livelihoods.
The Kitale-Lodwar highway on Saturday, November 23, 2019.
The Kitale-Lodwar highway on Saturday, November 23, 2019.
Image: MARYANNE CHAI

Torrential rainfall in October and November has displaced tens of thousands in Somalia, submerged whole towns in South Sudan and killed dozens in floods and landslides in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Above normal October-November-December rains are caused by the Indian Ocean Dipole, also known as the El Nino. Currently, sea surface temperatures around East Africa are significantly warmer than usual; a positive dipole. These high temperatures result in higher evaporation with moisture-laden air flowing over the greater Eastern Africa. 

The Australian meteorological organisation suggests that the 2019 dipole is the strongest since it started recording these variations. Similar events were recorded in 1997, which was the last significant El Nino in East Africa. Smaller events were recorded in 2006.

 
 

The 2019 El Nino is causing raging floods, which are wreaking havoc; wiping out crops and livestock, causing deadly landslides and annihilating livelihoods. In South Sudan, for example, the government has declared a state of emergency. In West Pokot, nearly 50 people are feared dead, hundreds of families have been displaced and government response capacity has been stretched to the limit.

While the authorities in Somalia are yet to disclose the scale of devastation from unprecedented rains and floods, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed described the unfolding crisis as beyond the capacity of his government. Communities already ravaged by drought and conflict are now at risk of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and other infectious diseases. About 370,000 people; children and the elderly have been displaced from their communities.

An El Nino in the greater eastern Africa is often associated with blistering drought in southern Africa. Experts say the scale of drought in southern Africa is staggering. An estimated 45 million people are threatened with hunger.

Early this year two cyclones, Idai and Kenneth, hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries. These cataclysmic cyclones decimated farmlands, leaving food production in a state of collapse.

While the El Nino phenomenon is not new, experts agree that the intensity of the 2019 event is unprecedented. The impact on health, both human and livestock, physical infrastructure, agriculture and the economy, in general, could be orders of magnitude larger than the last big El Nino event in 1997-98.

In Somalia and South Sudan, the capacity of communities and the state is severely undermined by the effects of conflict, drought and governance dysfunction. In Kenya, as evidenced by the tragedy in West Pokot, coordination between the national and county governments presents significant challenges for joint and timely response to disaster.

Intense rainfall events of the El Nino kind are also always associated with disease outbreaks. Most notable are malaria and Rift Valley Fever. In previous El Nino events; 1997-98 and in 2006-07 major outbreaks of RVF ravaged human health, and decimated livestock and wildlife populations in Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania.

 
 

As COP25 opens in Madrid, we must continue to grapple with mitigation, adaptation and more importantly, disaster early warning and early response. We must be prepared for more intense events in the future.