Around the world, countries are already preparing for the effects of the strengthening El Niño phenomenon, a warming of Pacific sea-surface temperatures. It tends to bring hot weather and droughts to Asia and Australia, and cooler, rainier weather to parts of the Americas. On Thursday the Peruvian government announced it has set aside nearly $63 million for prevention works aimed at reducing the anticipated toll from severe El Niño rain and flooding. This follows the government’s July 5 declaration of a 60-day state of emergency in towns in 14 regions to brace for possible damage from El Niño in the rainy season. Past occurrences have wreaked havoc on local fishing in Peru and triggered damaging landslides.
Prevention efforts have already gotten underway, such as in the department of Tumbes. Peru’s National Institute of Civil Defense declared that the most serious problem in that region was the silting and sedimentation of the Tumbes river. It should be 150 meters wide, but due to sediment build-up in certain stretches it is currently “strangled,” with a width of only 40 meters. (Its last cleanup was in 2006.) With a deluge of El Niño-caused rainfall, the river would likely overflow the banks and cause flood damage in the surrounding area. The $1.1 million project to de-silt the river began on Monday, and although it is scheduled to last three months, as a high priority it is expected to finish sooner.
In Australia, banks are warning there is a high risk of reduced wheat harvests this winter due to El Niño-caused dryness in the eastern part of the country. “Australian wheat production typically declines by about one-quarter during El Niño years,” Rabobank said in June, one day after National Australia Bank estimated the country’s harvest falling to an eight-year low. While Australian output only accounts for some 4% of world production, the country’s “12% share of world wheat exports is the critical swing factor for markets through El Niño years,” Rabobank added.
Likewise, Southeast Asia is also facing droughts that will be exacerbated by El Niño. In Thailand, the world’s second-biggest exporter of rice last year after India, water levels are at record lows. On July 23, Nikkei Asian Review reported:
Thirteen of the country’s 76 provinces are officially still in drought and nearing a crisis. The Royal Irrigation Department gained cabinet approval to cut daily water releases from dams to the Chao Phraya River basin from 28 million cu. meters a day to 18 million to ensure that there will be sufficient water until August, when national forecasters predict the rainy season will finally begin, two months late. Still, farmers have ignored government calls for them to stop pumping water.
Despite some recent rain, Thailand’s rice crop is expected to shrink by 5 million metric tons this year to 25 million metric tons.
Even worse, on June 29, the Philippines’ official weather forecaster warned that El Niño will cut rainfall by as much as 80% and hit food production. The country’s Department of Agriculture said that almost 66,000 farmers would be affected, with production losses of over $48 million. So the department is conducting cloud-seeding and is distributing more water pumps to tap rivers and groundwater sources.
Similarly, Canada’s central prairies are expecting El Niño to bring prolonged hot and dry weather this fall and winter (since not all of North America is affected equally). But unfortunately this region has already just experienced its driest winter and spring in 68 years of record keeping. The cumulative effect was worsened by the less-than-normal June rains needed to grow crops. “For ranchers it’s pretty much game over,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada. Some farmers in Alberta estimate they’ve already lost about one-third of their crops due to drought.
Meanwhile, Californians are praying that the increased rainfall from El Niño will end– or at least ease– their severe drought. But there will be dangers of destructive floods, and already there have been some freak-weather occurrences. On Sunday, heavy rains in a normally dry desert gully eroded the land around an elevated section of Interstate 10 between California and Arizona, collapsing the eastbound side and damaging the westbound side. “40% of the goods shipped throughout the country pass through that corridor, either by highway or rail. Now it’s been cut in half,” said Riverside County Board of Supervisors Chairman Marion Ashley.
Inspectors now plan to assess all bridges along a 30-mile stretch of the interstate after noticing that a second bridge showed signs of damage after the storm. And across California, state officials list about 450 bridges as potentially unstable during intense floods. (The major El Niño of 1997-98 brought heavy rain and flooding, causing about $300 million in damage to California’s highway system.) The total U.S. economic toll of the last El Niño was around $25 billion. However, in every adversity there is opportunity– namely for the U.S. construction industry, which gained around $500 million in business in the aftermath.
Historically, El Niño events tend to be strongest from December to February. And while they mostly last 9 to 12 months, they can go on for up to two years. For now, it’s still a guessing game of how powerful its impacts will be around the world, but one thing is for certain—this El Niño is growing, and it must be taken seriously.