El Niño is getting stronger — nations must mobilize

A woman sells produce at a flooded marketplace in Haiti.
A woman sells produce at a flooded marketplace in Haiti. UN/MINUSTAH

The 2015-16 El Niño is one of the strongest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Its intensity has been increasing over the years.

More than 50 million people in Africa, Asia and the Americas are struggling to cope with its impact.

Its effects go beyond environmental dimension and can have lasting consequences for development.

In the near term, a number of countries are facing crisis conditions, including in Latin America and the Caribbean. The small-island states of Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau have all declared states of emergency. The current rain season has been the driest in the last 35 years in southern Africa. Malawi has declared a “state of disaster.”

As of February, almost 1 million children needed treatment for acute malnutrition in Africa from food shortages because of El Niño’s weather extremes.

While the physical signs of the 2015-16 El Niño event are weakening, it will continue to influence climate patterns through the middle of 2016, and its socio-economic impacts will continue to strengthen until the end of the year.

Global policymakers must act urgently. El Niño is jeopardizing, and even reversing, the gains made in development. Our immediate priority must be to reduce the impact of the El Niño phenomenon on key development sectors and to put countries back on a path to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs). By reducing the impact of extreme weather conditions, we can help countries achieve these goals.

Extreme weather can have profound implications for people’s lives, health and livelihoods.

People whose livelihoods depend on agriculture, fisheries and livestock are particularly affected. Some countries have lost arable farm land.

In southern Africa alone, more than 32 million people are affected by severe drought. Early warning and early action systems for the agricultural sector can help reduce its vulnerability.

In countries with high-level vulnerability to extreme climate events, such as many of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and lower-income countries, the compounding effect of the current El Niño phenomenon is putting an additional burden on their capacity to manage risk and disasters. The effects of the 2015-16 El Niño has also been particularly hard on the countries of Central America.

Some countries have succeeded in mitigating the negative impact of El Niño. We must learn from their experience. They are the ones that have put in place longer-term climate predictions and developed capacity to act on these predictions.

Coordination at the national, regional and local levels and use of information and communication technology have been instrumental in an effective response.

Data become indispensable in our efforts. We need to systematically evaluate, record, share and account for disaster losses in order to develop strategies and plans to address the impacts of future El Niños.

We should also make risk-informed development investments — public and private. These investments will increase local and national preparedness capacity and resilience, particularly in the agriculture and food security, water and health sectors.

The devastating impact of the 2015-16 El Niño is another reminder that we must learn from the past and be prepared for the future –– we know what it takes to be prepared and to minimize its economic, social and environmental impact. As we get ready to embrace the Atlantic hurricane season, the world’s most vulnerable is counting on us to work together to manage and reduce the risks of extreme weather conditions.

Last week, the United Nations Economic and Social Council held a special meeting on the impacts of the 2015-16 El Nino phenomenon.

We will build on this meeting to address this common challenge and mobilize the United Nations development system to assist affected countries.

Oh Joon, ambassador and permanent representative of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, is president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council.