News story

Preparing for El Niño

DFID's country offices are playing a key role to ensure help is available for those suffering as a result of El Niño

Broken bridges and flooded areas between Bangula and Chigwamafumu, Malawi
Flooding in Malawi earlier this year left hundreds of thousands of people without a home or a livelihood. This year's El Niño is set to increase the risk of extreme weather from droughts to floods to cyclones. Picture: Concern Universal/Arjen van de Merwe

What is El Niño?

El Niño is a natural climate phenomenon that happens roughly every four years, linked to abnormally high ocean temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific. It increases the risk of extreme weather from droughts to floods to cyclones.

Longer term, climate change is also expected to increase weather variability, so when combined with episodes like El Niño this could lead to even more frequent extreme weather.

The last major El Niño event, in 1997/98, led to severe droughts in the Sahel and the Indian Subcontinent as well as severe flooding in parts of East Africa.

While difficult to predict, the El Niño this year looks set to be the strongest on record.

DFID’s experts know how serious this could be and are working hard to ensure the UK can help as many people as possible who might be affected.

The bones of a camel in a dry river bed near Kalakol, Turkana, Kenya, 2011
Droughts in the Horn of Africa in 2011 resulted in failed crops, lack of water and death of livestock. 3.5 million people in Kenya were in need of emergency assistance. Picture: DFID/Marisol Grandon

What might the effects be?

This is a real threat to people’s lives, health and livelihoods across the world, which will see increased calls for humanitarian assistance as people struggle to grow crops, face water shortages and disease.

Fragile states like Yemen and South Sudan are already struggling with war and the threat of famine; without increased humanitarian support El Niño will make a difficult situation even worse. In Ethiopia and the Sahel the impact of changing weather patterns is already visible. Outbreaks of diseases such as Dengue Fever, cholera and malaria are possible, so it is essential that health systems are shored up to respond.

Monitoring & Resources

DFID’s humanitarian experts continually monitor emerging risks across the world from typhoons to famines.

Since the start of April they have been watching for signs of El Niño, working alongside the Met Office and scientific advisers, to help advise where the UK efforts should be focused.

All DFID offices are very much alive to the risks El Niño poses. Country teams from Ethiopia to Kenya to Bangladesh are working hard to ensure help is there for those suffering as a result of El Niño.

In some places this might mean boosting resources for existing projects while in others the effects may need to be monitored for longer to ensure the best response. In countries like Burma, Nepal and Pakistan DFID has disaster response programmes in place that could be quickly scaled up to provide urgent assistance.

For example, in Nepal, Britain’s preparedness work meant that within a few hours of the recent earthquake British aid was reaching hard-hit communities with DFID shelter kits providing temporary homes to more than 65,000 people.

A cyclone shelter in Bangladesh
Cyclone shelters can provide a lifeline to villagers and their livestock as storms hit. Picture: DFID/Rafiqur Rahman Raqu

Disaster Resilience

Disaster resilience work is also crucial in mitigating effects. In Ethiopia, DFID’s Productive Safety Nets Programme (PSNP) has helped turn desert land into land that can be farmed again.

In Kenya the Hunger Safety Net Programme has helped to protect household assets of the poorest people in Northern Kenya and can scale up to protect those at risk from droughts and floods. This helps families recover more quickly and get back on their feet.

In Bangladesh, the Chars Livelihoods programme is helping 78,000 households to become less vulnerable to flooding, through raising houses on plinths and supporting sustainable livelihoods.

In Burma, DFID has provided much needed support for victims of this year’s terrible flooding, and is working to ensure further help is available to help prepare and recover from the effects of El Niño.

With a looming food crisis in Malawi, Britain is already responding with £10 million of emergency aid to support the World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF to deliver food assistance and help those suffering from malnutrition.

DFID support for WFP in Somalia is also helping them prepare and respond.

DFID has also drawn international partners together including the WFP, UNICEF, World Bank and the Red Cross, as well as NGOs and individual governments to ensure and early and coordinated response.

In March 2015 DFID and the World Bank launched a fund to help developing countries better anticipate and plan for natural disasters.

Longer term

Planning early for disasters and boosting resilience saves lives, but it can only do so much. The world also needs to work together to tackle climate change – an issue that affects us all - to ensure the effects of these events, which hit developing countries hardest, do not become increasingly brutal in the future.

Climate change is one of the most serious threats we face, not just to the environment, but to our economic prosperity, poverty eradication and global security. That is why the Prime Minister recently announced a scale up in the UK’s commitment through the International Climate Fund to nearly £6 billion over the next five years.

To ensure a more secure and prosperous future for us all, the UK is playing its part by helping some of the most vulnerable communities become more resilient to climate change and by supporting the developing world to take the clean energy path to growth and prosperity.

Published 16 October 2015