International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

Partners in action


CIIFEN Taking a step forward for the risk management of the El Nino Phenomenon

Rodney Martínez Güingla

The issue of disaster management has been incorporated into the international agenda, in particular at the present time as the WCDR in Kobe has been scheduled to take place soon. It also seems like a number of forums have gathered extensive collections of recipes to be applied as a pragmatic outcome aimed at systematizing lessons learned and best practices, and disseminating them so that these lessons, as a whole, help us improve ourselves.

But we only need to go beyond the strategic level of these recommendations to find a different universe: a reality in which we frequently find conflicts dealing with coordination and institutional disagreement, as well as a lack of connection among different levels of coordination. On the one hand, those involved in disaster management justify their hard and commendable work to planning officials who, on the other hand, observe disasters from a different standpoint. But they all share the same scenario, one of confusion and unchanging figures in terms of human losses and material damage, which hinders economies and causes wide-spread poverty on the planet.

Within this complex system related to our climate, and especially to the El Niño phenomenon, I would like to describe what has been, in my opinion, a very long process. Due to its length, however, this process has been able to acquire the level of maturity needed to become, to the extent possible, a feasible, adequate and simplified procedure.

Some background information…

In compliance with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 52/200 –related to international cooperation for reduction of the negative impact of the El Niño phenomenon-, the 1998 Declaration of Guayaquil proposed “immediate actions in order to assess the feasibility of establishing an international research center on the El Niño Phenomenon/ Southern Oscillation (ENSO).”

Subsequently, The UN General Assembly adopted other resolutions also related to international cooperation (UN GA Resolutions 53/185, 54/200, 55/197 and 56/194, as well as ECOSOC Resolutions 1999/46 and 2000/33), with the purpose of reducing the impact of the El Niño phenomenon through an inter-agency mechanism which would be located in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Three of its sponsoring bodies established a partnership in order to advance the creation of this center: The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN-ISDR), and the Government of Ecuador. As a result of this partnership, two assessment missions were carried out, as well as a number of regional gatherings with the support of other international organizations.

These assessment missions, the aforementioned resolutions and the subsequent analyses carried out by the three sponsoring organizations, allowed for the establishment of CIIFEN, whose opening ceremony was held in Guayaquil in January 2003. This event gathered more than 100 experts, representatives of 33 countries around the world, and 19 international organizations.

CIIFEN’s Mission

CIIFEN’s mission is to promote, complement and carry out projects related to scientific and applied research. These projects are required to better understand the El Niño phenomenon and climate change at the regional level, and improve early warning systems to contribute to reducing its socioeconomic impacts and establishing solid foundations for sustainable development policies, in the face of new climate scenarios.

What is our strategy for the El Niño Phenomenon?

Our approach to cope with the El Niño phenomenon is based on the integrated strengthening of an early warning system at the regional level. This includes a concept of resource correlation and rationalization with a snowball effect.

In order to improve the El Niño early warning system at the regional level, we have drafted a specific strategy that draws upon four underlying principles:

1) The strengthening of seasonal forecast. Although this may sound simple, it is actually a complex undertaking. In recent years, institutions in the Eastern South Pacific Region have strengthened their own capacities, and this represents a step forward in terms of obtaining and acquiring reliable information. Unfortunately, the development of dynamic regional oceanic and atmospheric model remains limited. CIIFEN has also devoted efforts to improve this by assessing regional capacities,providing basic training on regional and mid-term modeling,fostering international cooperation for human resource training, in particular at the PhD level; and offering training to institutes in charge of providing information related to El Niño at the regional level. There have been other actions carried out, such as the creation of regional expert groups that work on, share and propose practical solutions at this level. This process will be indirectly translated into a more homogenous scientific and technical approach to seasonal forecast in the region, as well as into the establishment of more reliable forecast tools. A second workshop focusing on modeling will be held jointly by the IOC, CPPS y CIIFEN during the first 2005 quarter in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Subsequently, an aggressive action plan will be developed to implement a regional model that will benefit all countries in this region, ensuring technology transfer and strengthening the scientific capacity needed to respond to the El Niño related events.

2) The creation of risk scenarios by sector. This is a means through which scientific information produced by forecast reports may be transferred to users and decision makers working in sectors that are traditionally vulnerable to the El Niño phenomenon, such as agriculture, fishery, health, power, water resources, road systems and urban infrastructure. The region has taken steps at different paces regarding this particular aspect and, in the context of this positive momentum, it is necessary to improve the existing technology to allow for the automatic creation of different web-based scenarios, drawing on a solid Geographic Information System (GIS) with high-resolution maps, as the ones that CIIFEN is managing through the United Nations. Along these lines, the Center is developing a series of virtual applications that will allow for data mining and online GIS products, and the use of artificial intelligence in multivariable risk models, regulated by expert systems that will provide users with operational information related to climate and seasonal variability. The first module of this series will be inaugurated in December 2004. Further information is available on CIIFEN´s website:

3) A critical issue in which the CIIFEN’s strategy puts emphasis is the strengthening of information systems, so that each individual becomes a climate risk manager. This may be achieved through a complex multimodal system that includes both information posted on the Internet and links with the media through a virtual and/or conventional center, electronic mailing lists and, in particular, a subsystem intended for government agencies, which are key for making decisions related to El Niño’s early warnings. With the support of UNDP , CIIEFEN is conducting a analysis regarding the existing lack of links between information providers and users. This will allow for the development of a specific implementation plan that will take advantage of all existing information networks, in order to complement and link them.

4) The fourth principle –although it could also be part of the latter one- is the Involvement of Government Systems in risk management related to the El Niño phenomenon, not only in terms of a communication subsystem but also regarding other related issues. From a technical standpoint, CIIFEN will promote among different bodies, such as CAPRADE, and at the national level, the socioeconomic benefits of an efficient risk management and issuing timely and reliable early warnings to cope with the El Niño phenomenon. All scientific products, sectoral scenarios and information will be translated into positive indicators related to poverty reduction, sustained economic growth and adequate risk transfer from sectors usually affected, in order to minimize potential social impacts.

The course of action has been already established. There is a lot of potential in this region, but also an increasing demand for a new scientific approach that contributes to achieving development. CIIFEN wishes to make this concept its mission statement: “Understanding the El Niño Phenomenon in order to Live with It.”