El Niño - a risk for future generations

ECOSOC President, Mr. Oh Joon, speaking at the special meeting on the impact of El Niño
 
By Huw Beynon

9 May 2016 – The devastating impact of the El Niño phenomenon on more than 60 million people was the focus of a Special meeting of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) at UN HQ in New York on Friday.

“We must remember that El Niño is not a one-off event but recurring global phenomena that we must address for future generations and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” said President Oh Joon at the opening of a special meeting on "Impacts of the 2015/16 El Niño phenomenon: Reducing risks and capturing opportunities." 

Mr. Oh underscored that since 2015, the world has witnessed the largest El Niño occurrence to date, with many developing countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific suffering under its “devastating and far-reaching impacts”.

Noting that El Niño is a good example of climate change affecting the livelihood of people, the ECOSOC President said that Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau have all declared states of emergency due to drought conditions from El Niño, while Malawi has declared “a state of disaster.”

Mr. Robert Glasser, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, noted that although it is too early to assess the full impacts of the current El Niño, it is certain that the impact on people and their livelihoods is higher in low-income countries and small island developing States.

He noted that climate change is likely to increase El Niño risk further but there is an increased predictability of occurrence of El Niño cycles and occurrence of extreme events in general. To reduce the impacts of El Niño, it is necessary to translate seasonal forecasts and risk data into risk-informed decision-making and actionable guidance so that different development sectors can take proactive measures, Mr. Glasser emphasized.

He also noted that preventing new and reducing existing disaster risk is the core goal of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 adopted by the international community this past year. “Together with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Sendai Framework provides a way forward for addressing future El Niño events,” he said.

Ms. Elena Manaenkova, Assistant Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), highlighted that while the scientific understanding of El Niño has increased greatly in recent years, the current 2015/16 unprecedented El Niño and future events are entering “uncharted territories.”

“This naturally occurring El Niño event and human induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways, which we have never before experienced,” she said.

During the special meeting, countries outlined their preparedness, mitigation and risk reduction efforts for the El Niño. Strong national planning, budgeting for preparedness, coordinating local and national efforts, and the use of risk information and early warning systems were highlighted. 

Ethiopia has experienced its worst drought in 15 years. Households face poverty and malnutrition with some 10.2 million people dependent on food aid. H.E. Mitiku Kassa, Commissioner for Disaster Risk Management, said that the Government of Ethiopia responded with a coordinated approach to alleviate the impacts of El Niño on food security, agricultural production, water and sanitation, health care, and education.

Mr. Juan Manuel Benites Ramos, Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation from Peru, noted that the 1997/98 El Niño, cost 6% of GDP. Guided by the National Centre for Disaster Prevention, Peru performed evacuation simulations, cleared urban drainage systems, conducted mosquito fumigation campaigns, reinforced health systems, and provided equipment for the predicted heavy rainfall.

Mr. Dian Triansyah Djani, Permanent Representative of Indonesia said there was a focus on working with local communities to prepare for drought conditions; and the government invested in dams and irrigation systems. Mr. Ahmed Sareer, Permanent Representative of the Maldives and Chair of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), highlighted the economic damage from El Niño, as well as drought and the impact of coral beaching on valuable fishing and tourism industries.

In Ecuador, agricultural losses from El Niño are estimated at some $2.5 billion as flooding and landslides have destroyed 5.3 million hectors of arable, according to Mr. Telmo de la Cuadra from the Secretariat for Risk Management, Government of Ecuador.

The ECOSOC special meeting was organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) in collaboration with the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and WMO. 

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