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

Disasters and threats in the Region


El Niño Phenomenon and the Central American Agriculture Sector

By Manuel Jiménez

The warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), known as the El Niño phenomenon, is a recurring event whose periodicity varies between two and seven years. Its average duration is estimated to be between 12 and 18 months and the timing and intensity may vary between events. Since mid-2004, both the ocean and the atmosphere have shown changes that indicates the development of a new episode of the El Niño phenomenon. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported a new El Niño event last September, after registering increases of more than 0.5°C in the sea surface temperature for three consecutive months.

In addition, on October 4th 2004, the Central American Climate Forum (FCCA), which monitors global oceanic and atmospheric conditions, issued a special report regarding the Forum’s perspectives on a 2004-2005 El Niño event and its potential impacts on Central America. The report stated that other international centers that issue global forecasts have not still identified this warming as an El Niño event. The Meteorological Service of Australia (BoM), for instance, uses temperature anomalies of greater than 0.8°C to define a warming as an El Niño event. The report recognized, however, that changes in ocean temperatures indicate that an El Niño event could be in its development stage, even if all other indicators are not in line.

Meanwhile, in late August, the Secretariat of the Central American Agricultural Council (SCAC), through its VULSAC Project -financed by the Republic of China-, issued a preliminary warning in a first announcement directed to the Central American Ministers of Agriculture. This communiqué reported that the presence of El Niño was merely expected, and that the NOAA announcement still allowed for some time so that countries of the region could review the most effective actions taken in the past and improve their own preparedness. This first communiqué also carried an offer to collaborate with the Ministers of Agriculture, in order to begin activities to raise awareness and design or review existing emergency plans within the agricultural sector. These preventive early warnings are important since some measures must be planned and be ready for implementation in a relatively short period of time. Waiting for the final confirmation of a more advanced development stage implies some risk as actions may be taken too late. If an El Niño event took place in the dry season, it would make it longer and more intense, causing problems for cattle (water and food supply), the forestry sector (greater likelihood of fires), and aquaculture and fishing across the continent (elevation of air temperatures and reduction of water levels). Rising ocean temperatures also have an immediate effect on sea fishing.

Likewise, and in the longer term, it is necessary to be aware of and prepare for possible changes in the first phase of the 2005 rainy season. This could mean, among other things, paying special attention to decisions made about planting crops that are susceptible to adverse climate conditions, especially basic grains.

To date, two other communiqués have been issued: one in September, which confirmed the presence of the El Niño phenomenon, and the second one in October which recounted the effects of its foreseen evolution on the Central American region (see box).

Early warnings associated with the El Niño phenomenon are particularly useful for the agricultural sector, and efforts to improve such warnings have been encouraged by: 1) a new scientific understanding of how to detect, monitor, and forecast an evolving El Niño event, 2) response time or the period of time between a warning and the occurrence of the event (floods, drought and wild fires associated with the phenomenon can be anticipated with a reasonable amount of time), 3) the recurrence of threats or climate changes caused by this event; and 4) the possibility of avoiding or reducing losses and taking advantage of market opportunities associated with the presence of El Niño.

Special considerations

Through its announcements, the SCAC has informed that, according to predictions, the intensity of this new the El Niño episode will be weak. The SCAC, however, has also stated that this should be assessed very carefully. The monitoring of past events has shown that the perception of intensity may vary as the event develops. Likewise, the effects on the agricultural sector and rural communities depend on other factors, such as: i) climate background (some areas in Central American countries have experienced scarce rainfall and reduced infiltration, which may have a negative impact on some river flows), ii) when, within the seasonal agricultural calendar, the event takes place (for instance, this El Niño event will occur at the end of the season, and priority will be given to ocean warming because it will be the dry season in the Pacific. Attention will be also paid to the possibility of greater-than-average rainfall in the Caribbean during the same season), and iii) certainly, the level of preparedness.
The response

Warnings are complemented by concrete actions, including organization (committees and preparedness plans), monitoring of climate trends and forecast, monitoring of hazards, concrete recommendations by productive activity (crops, livestock, fishing, etc.) and by area (information and communication management, market intelligence, funding, insurance, etc.). As part of a response, events should be documented and actions assessed in order to provide feedback to those activities aimed at preventing and mitigating future events.

Recommendations by productive activity must include short- and long-term actions. Examples of such recommendations include: adapt the seasonal agricultural calendar, temporarily avoid crop planting in those areas where critical conditions have been anticipated, substitute affected crops during their early development stage for others more resilient to unfavorable conditions, clean and maintain drainage systems in areas affected by excessive rainfall, carry out plague and disease surveillance actions, save additional cattle food supply, provisionally transport cattle to low-risk areas, pay attention to the existing stock of supplies and the use of basic products, and strengthen fire brigades. In the longer term, the pivotal role of technology must be acknowledged, in particular in terms of identifying and adapting successful stories, developing productive techniques that should be environmentally friendly and more resilient to adverse climate conditions, and incorporating disaster risk management to agricultural planning. It is also imperative to promote a culture of prevention that avoids the same types of risk whenever hazard occurs.

Recent actions

The SCAC has begun a process in order to support the Central American Ministries of Agriculture. For instance, in Costa Rica, the VULSAC Project has been represented in events aimed at raising awareness and has provided support for the development of technical material to be used by the Ministry of Agriculture. In El Salvador, the SCAC, jointly with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, and OSPESCA held nine seminars that gathered government authorities, representatives of international organizations linked to the agricultural sector, technicians, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, students and academicians, among others. Mr. Luis Garcia, Director of the Salvadoran Meteorological Administration, Mr. Carlos Brenes, representative of the Regional Oceanographic Information Service, and experts of the agricultural and fishing sectors participating during the activities held in this country. Activities in Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica were also organized in November and December.

In addition, on September 27, the SCAC participated in a meeting of the Regional Technical Forum for the Promotion of Food and Nutritional Security in Central America (ITCR), which includes the bodies of the System for Central American Integration. This event provided an opportunity to present on the perspectives of the agricultural sector on the current El Niño phenomenon.

Furthermore, during the Extraordinary Meeting of Ministers of the Central American Agricultural Council (CAC), held in Miami, Florida, on October 14, 2004, participants agreed that support from the CORECA-CAC Secretariat is important in order to follow-up and inform the Ministries of Agriculture on the situation of the basic grain supply in Central America for the following months and, during the next CAC’s meeting, submit a report regarding the evolution of the El Niño phenomenon. This report must include recommendations on ways to cope with the El Niño’s effects on the agriculture sector.

The webpage of the CORECA-CAC Secretariat includes a section devoted to the El Niño phenomenon (, in which documents, predictions, and links to meteorological services and other relevant websites, among other things, may be found.


Summary of the Climate Scenario Forecast for Central America
with the Presence of a 2004-2005 El Niño Event
(According to the FCCA Report)

• Changing ocean temperatures indicate that an El Niño
event is developing.
• The event will reach its mature stage between
November 2004 and January 2005.
• It will be an event of weak to moderate intensity and
of short duration, with a return to near-normal
temperatures in the May-July quarter of 2005.
• Early rains are expected in some parts of the region,
which could be significant, particularly in the Pacific
slope areas that are currently experiencing a deficit in
accumulated rainfall.
• Greater incidence of cold fronts during the months of
December, January, and February with effects on
minimum temperatures, particularly in the northern
part of the region; episodes of persistent rain in the
Caribbean Basin areas and/or strong winds.
• The prolonging of the mature stage could slightly slow
the beginning of the 2005 rainy season.

Source: Prepared based on the Special Report of the Central American Climate Forum, under CRRH coordination, issued on October 4, 2004.