The United Nations is urging Pacific Islanders and their governments to prepare now for a looming El Niño emergency with the potential to affect more than four million people. “Climatologists are now unanimous in predicting that we are heading for a strong to severe El Niño event in the coming months. Some modelling is now suggesting this El Niño could be as severe as the event in 1997/98 which is the worst on record and brought drought to countries including Papua New Guinea and Fiji,” United Nations Resident Coordinator, Osnat Lubrani said.
“Now is the time for communities and governments to get ready for the extreme weather changes El Niño usually triggers. A number of Pacific countries are currently in the process of implementing or drafting drought plans and the United Nations stands ready to support these efforts by providing coordination and technical advice.”
Over the coming months, countries on the equator can expect more rain, flooding and higher sea levels, presenting challenges for low-lying atolls already feeling the impacts of climate change. The more populous countries of the Pacific south west will see conditions get drier from now on with some eventually slipping into drought. El Niño years characteristically feature a longer cyclone season, with more intense cyclones affecting a wider portion of the Pacific.
“El Niño has the potential to trigger a regional humanitarian emergency and we estimate as many as 4.1 million people are at risk from water shortages, food insecurity and disease across the Pacific,” Sune Gudnitz, Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Regional Office for the Pacific said.
“Countries including Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands are already feeling El Nino’s impact with reduced rainfall affecting crops and drinking water supplies. In addition, drought conditions would further complicate the humanitarian situation in countries that are just emerging from the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclones Pam, Maysak and Raquel.”
Some schools have already closed in PNG because of water shortages .The same thing happened in Fiji during the 1997/98 drought disrupting children’s education.
“It is critical that we think now about how schools can be prepared to stay open. In Fiji in 1997/98 some schools were reliant on trucks delivering water and so it is important that tanks are checked now so that they are in a good condition to store water. Schools need to act now to ensure they can maintain sanitation and hygiene if water-reliant toilets and handwashing stations no longer work,” Dr Karen Allen, UNICEF Pacific Representative said.
Prolonged drought is particularly difficult for women and children who are mostly responsible for collecting water in Pacific communities.
“In drought situations, women and children may be travelling further to access water from unfamiliar sources, affecting their safety and security. Women are also usually responsible for family hygiene. When water supply is inadequate, these activities will become more difficult because limited water is prioritised for drinking and cooking,” Aleta Miller, UN Women representative at Multi-Country Office in Suva, Fiji, said.
Fixing leaks and collecting rainwater are both critical for farmers to feed their livestock and crops, as well as for families to use in washing, cooking and drinking. Farmers are being encouraged to plant drought resistant crops which can adapt to survive long periods of dryness. Multi-storey cropping systems, mulching and drip irrigation are also effective ways of stretching limited water supplies. Watering crops late in the day can also reduce evaporation and the installation of ‘Tippy Taps’ can improve hygiene and reduce waste. Communities are also being warned of potential changes to tuna fisheries.
A range of health issues may emerge in an El Niño year making good hygiene and mosquito protection both crucial.
“Floods and droughts can precipitate outbreak of number of diseases including diarrhoea, leptospirosis and typhoid, by exposure to contaminated water or decreased hygiene due to water shortages. There may also be an increase in vector-borne diseases including dengue, chikungunya and zika virus due to increase mosquito vectors and higher temperatures that can enhance reproduction and transmission of these viruses. Malnutrition because of low or poor quality food supplies is also a problem we need to be aware of,” said Dr Liu Yunguo, Director of Pacific Technical Support and Representative in the South Pacific of the World Health Organization.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Regional Office for the Pacific has launched a new web portal with important information and links about El Niño and how to prepare. Visit: http://www.unocha.org/el-nino
What is El Niño?
El Niño is a warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific. It can have profound effects on weather patterns around the world. El Niño events tend to happen every three to seven years. They can last from six months to two years. The most severe El Niño happened in 1997/98. El Niño and its opposite, La Niña, are both naturally occurring phenomena that have happened in cycles over history. These events are not caused by climate change but climate change could make their impacts more severe.