Preparing for El Niño

 Food Security

As the experiences of 1997/8 make clear, El Niño years are particularly difficult for farmers in many parts of the Pacific which may experience drought or drier than normal conditions. Farmers should already be planning for the year ahead by planting drought resistant crops which can adapt to survive long periods of dryness. Examples include dalo ni tana, wild yams, African yams, giant taro, cassava, okra (smooth green), moringa and bananas. Trees such as breadfruit, coconut and mango are also drought tolerant. There is a chance that fruit trees will fruit heavily as the climate dries further and it would be wise for communities to preserve this fruit for future use so that it does not go to waste.

Another possible way to make the most of limited rainfall is through multi-storey cropping system. Land underneath coconut trees is often wasted but it can be used more productively by planting additional crops, growing to different heights with different root systems, providing more diverse food during a drought. For example in dry areas papaya and pineapple can be planted under coconut trees.

Mulching and drip irrigation are other effective ways of conserving limited water supplies, whilst composting can provide additional nutrients to help plants survive. Watering crops late in the day can also reduce evaporation and the installation of ‘Tippy Taps’ can improve hygiene and reduce waste.

El Niño events don’t just affect food supplies on land. They also affect fish stocks and distribution because of changes to water temperatures. The Secretariat of the Pacific Community says a strong El Nino event this year is likely to push tuna fisheries towards the central Pacific (towards the exclusive economic zones of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau and Nauru) and away from fishing grounds of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Palau. It’s also possible that tuna could be harder to catch in Fiji. Given the importance of tuna as a source of sustenance for coastal communities across the Pacific, it is important to start planning for other fishing activities.

 Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Fixing leaky taps and pipes, as well as collecting rainwater are all critical for farmers to feed their livestock and crops, and for families to use in washing, cooking and to drink.

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.

“For these reasons, it is imperative that women are directly consulted about water access and safety issues. They should also be consulted about emergency distribution plans including the provision of appropriate water containers that can be easily carried by women and children. Women really bear the brunt of drought impacts and we must consider this as we prepare for the El Niño season to come.”


A range of health issues may emerge in an El Niño year. The majority of deaths and disease associated with El Niño are attributable to extreme weather events, including droughts, cyclones, typhoons and floods.

“Floods and droughts can precipitate outbreak of number of diseases including diarrhea, leptospirosis, 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 increased temperatures that can enhance reproduction and transmission of these viruses. Malnutrition because of low or poor quality food supplies is also a problem,” said Dr. Liu Yunguo, Director of Pacific Technical Support and Representative in the South Pacific of the World Health Organization.


Shelter preparedness for El Niño is essential. Safe and secure houses are required to ensure that people are protected from adverse weather conditions, such as severe rainfall.

In areas of drought, properly functioning roofs and rainwater harvesting systems can contribute to local level resilience to the El Niño event by acting as a valuable source of water collection and storage. People should make sure their roofs are secure, free from debris and potential water contaminants, gutters are secured and functioning, and that water tanks are free from leaks and have functioning taps. If you don't have a rainwater harvesting system, identify where water runs off your roof and consider what containers (e.g. buckets) you could use to capture some water when it does rain.


Of course, with an increased risk of more intense cyclones over a wider area this southern summer, it is also imperative that families, communities, Governments and aid agencies ensure they are adequately prepared. 

“People in the Pacific are no strangers to cyclones but this season could be worse than usual and now is the time to prepare,” Sune Gudnitz, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Regional Office for the Pacific said.

There are simple things everyone can do to get ready. People need to know the risks in their local area and develop emergency plans, setting out where they will go in a cyclone or other emergency. They should also have an emergency kit including dry-goods such as flour, rice, sugar, tea and powdered milk, as well as canned food. It should also include emergency supplies such as matches, candles, plastic bags, a water container, a first aid kit, soap and toilet paper. Most importantly, communities should stay informed about emergency warnings and stay safe by following official advice.


Sources: Fiji Ministry of Health, Vanuatu Department of Water, WHO, UNICEF, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Radio New Zealand