Rainfall & El Niño

An El Niño event means a range of weather changes for different parts of the Pacific.

Countries on the equator can expect more rain, flooding and higher sea levels as El Niño takes hold. This is a serious concern for low-lying atolls already feeling the impacts of climate change. In a very severe El Niño, these same countries may then slip into drought. 

The more populous countries of the Pacific south west will see conditions get drier from now on.

“An El Nino year normally means that the rainfall in certain parts of the Pacific will be more and some parts of the Pacific will be less. When we look at some of the island groupings especially around Tuvalu, and Kiribati, those areas will see that rainfall will be more than they usually get but further south - Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and parts of the Solomon Islands - will get reduced rainfall,” Ravin Kumar, Director of the Fiji Meteorological Service said.

The lack of rain in the western Pacific will exacerbate the drought conditions already being experienced by several Pacific nations, such as Fiji and Tonga. Some forecasters are predicting the El Niño situation could reach the intensity of the 1997-8 event which was one of the most severe on record and brought drought to Micronesia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

“The worst case scenario we might see is 1997-8. The current El Niño is already matching the 1997-8 event as far as ocean temperatures are concerned but the models are predicting it may intensify further, becoming the most intense event ever observed. A strong El Niño is the most likely outcome at this time,” Neville Koop, from the Fiji- based NaDraki weather service said.

The Pacific Humanitarian Team is warning that El Niño places as many as 4.37 million people at risk from drought. This includes approximately 2.4 million people identified by the Government of PNG, as well as 1.67 million people in the remaining Pacific nations (500-thousand from Fiji alone) who may be affected by rainfall changes.

“This is a developing humanitarian emergency. Drought has already taken hold in many parts of the Pacific  with impacts of low rainfall being felt in countries including PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa,” Sune Gudnitz, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Regional Office for the Pacific said.

With the beginning of the dry season in Papua New Guinea in May 2015, rivers and rain water catchments dried up, while staple crops, such as sweet potato and taro perished in the arid conditions. This has led to a food crisis given that more than 80 per cent of the nation’s total population live in rural areas and rely on subsistence agriculture. The central mountainous Highlands region, where 40 percent of people live, is the worst affected area. Frost in Enga Province further devastated village food gardens in high altitude areas. Priority needs include food, water and agricultural recovery support. Many schools and health facilities have scaled down their operations or closed due to water and electricity shortages. Negative coping strategies, such as one meal a day, have been reported. With many affected communities living in remote areas, access remains a key issue.Some previously affected areas in the Highlands and Momase regions have received intermittent rains.Other areas along the southern coastal provinces and islands continue to experience lower than average rainfall.

The evolving El Niño event is  placing stress on water resources in parts of Fiji, especially the outer islands and remote rural areas where piped water is not accessible. The Marshall Islands and other parts of Micronesia are also bracing for an El Nino related drought.  El Niño is a looming crisis for countries in this region which are hugely reliant on rain for drinking water. In Vanuatu, communities are feeling food and water shortages connected with an El Niño-induced drought, prompting the Government to begin emergency food distributions last year.

“Drought conditions will particularly adversely affect countries such as Vanuatu and Tuvalu that are just emerging from the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Pam and the flooding and erosion it brought to the region, destroying food crops. In the Solomon Islands, food security hotspots have emerged where crop growth has been interrupted by repeated natural disasters," Mr Gudnitz said.

Some are particularly worried about how long communities might have to cope with these very dry conditions. Seasonal rainfall patterns mean the dry weather may not break until the second half of 2016.

“What is most concerning of all about this El Niño event is that the current low rainfall over the south Pacific will continue through the 2016 Southern Hemisphere Winter. This means there’s unlikely to be any relief until the start of the 2016-17 wet season,” Neville Koop from NaDraki Weather said.

Sources: UN Resident Coordinator’s Office PNG, PNG Government, Nadraki Weather, Fiji Meteorological Service, NOAA