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 in the Region


The use of El Niño forecasting in
Latin America and the Caribbean

by Victor O. Magaña Rueda
and Jorge Luis Vázquez Aguirre
Center for Atmospheric Sciences
National Autonomous University of Mexico
Mexico D.F. 04510


A Potential Early Warning System in the presence of El Niño

During 1997-1998 in Latin America, economic losses related to El Niño reached some $8.500 million dollars. Many people think that these figures are even higher. For said reason, the possibility of using El Niño forecasting in the planning of our development strategies has been discussed. A better understanding of how El Niño influences the weather in Latin America and the Caribbean has led affected sectors, as well as authorities of a number of countries in such regions, to consider possible strategies that would allow for reducing the negative impact of such phenomenon.

Just to mention some of the difficulties related to the implementation of a potential early warning system of El Niño, the following elements must be considered: i) limited capacity to develop weather reports; ii) the lack of strategies for broadcasting technical information to a number of users; iii) the failure of institutional capacity to translate forecast information into concrete actions for prevention.

On the other hand, there exists a number of countries where information related to both climate and El Niño is already being used. This is why the eventual implementation of the aforementioned system may represent a major factor to enable many countries to reduce their vulnerability in the presence of El Niño.

The present report analyzes how Latin American and Caribbean countries face such extreme weather conditions associated with El Niño, as well as which are the most affected sectors by El Niño and how forecast may be used mainly during extreme events (El Niño or La Niña) to reduce some of the negative effects that may arise.

Lessons learned from El Niño (1997-98) which can be translated into initiatives to reduce vulnerability with respect to abnormal weather conditions.

El Niño phenomenon has become part of the common language used by both the population and government sectors, just as it is part of the terms used by the community of environmental sciences. However, it is not clear if everyone understands what such weather condition means or how it is reflected on the regional climate. Frequently, El Niño has been used as the scapegoat to justify the great vulnerability that Latin America and the Caribbean face with regards to the weather’s natural variability.

The most recent event of El Niño, which occurred between 1997 and 1998, led a number of sectors to demand clearer information about what was happening with the weather. The occurrence of extreme events associated with El Niño, such as heavy rainfall or lengthy droughts, constituted an additional factor that caused losses in many economic sectors which directly or indirectly depend on weather conditions. According to some estimates, economic losses in Latin America related to El Niño during 1997-1998 reached $ 8,500 million dollars. However, others think that these figures are even higher. The negative impacts of such phenomenon do not only involve economic losses for thousands of million of dollars. It is widely known that the social cost of El Niño is also considerable. Deaths, migration movements and hunger are only some of the forms in which El Niño expresses itself among the population.

The experience of previous events related to El Niño, mainly in countries severely affected by this phenomenon, has resulted in adaptation strategies which involve official sectors, as well as productive groups and the population at large. In the face of a warning regarding an El Niño event, credit granted by world financial institutions to implement preventive actions has resulted in the reduction of the negative impacts of such phenomenon. This, nevertheless, is just the case of a limited number of countries in the region. A “culture of reaction”, instead of a culture of prevention, has resulted in a number of considerable losses. Many countries are still working to establish the conditions that existed prior to 1997.

The lessons learned from El Niño during 1997-1998 have started to be translated into a number of initiatives aimed at reducing vulnerability in the face of abnormal weather conditions. Several countries have improved their legislations in order to start acting by preventing. However, other countries have not taken any measures and, therefore, it will be necessary to receive financial support to reduce the vulnerability of both those sectors and population groups which in the past have been the most affected ones. Several financial institutions interested in these issues are developing studies to determine to what extent it would be possible to apply early warning systems which, after the forecasting of an El Niño or La Niña event, should able to implement a number of actions aimed at reducing the potential effects of these phenomena. It is clear that in order to take actions based on an El Niño forecast, it is necessary to develop some capacities to first translate the information generated by large forecasting agencies and centers into local forecast and, then, to make these local reports understandable and within reach, especially regarding the most affected sectors.

This report describes some of the conclusions stated during one of the phases of the project titled “Studies about the Feasibility of Forecast and Reduction of the Socioeconomic impacts of El Niño Southern Oscillation in Latin America and the Caribbean”, financed by the Inter-American Development Bank. The goal of this project is to design and determine the viability of a project to establish a regional system which may produce early warnings regarding imminent danger, among a number of social and economic sectors, based on forecasts about El Niño phenomenon, in order to reduce its negative effects. The viability of the project is analyzed from a technical, economic, social, environmental, legal and institutional viewpoint.

The review of the technical and institutional capacities to make use of El Niño weather reports, developed by large institutions devoted to weather and climate studies, was carried out through visits to most Latin American and Caribbean countries. This provided the opportunity to interact with those responsible of analyzing and producing technical information about the weather (such as National Meteorological Services), as well as with the users of this information. Several conclusions were obtained after more than three months of traveling within the continent, and by speaking to farmers and personnel from different sectors such as water treatment, power generation, civil protection and health. All of these sectors have been affected by El Niño.

Stakeholder use of El Niño forecasting.

In most countries of the region, monthly weather reports are being produced and are associated mainly with the characteristics of rain. Nevertheless, these reports are rarely prepared considering the needs of those sectors interested in this information. For example, monthly reports are issued with a rigid format and a technical language which, only in rare occasions, are understood by these users. Part of the problem resides on the fact that only occasionally meteorological services have specialists in the field of climate variability, in charge of preparing weather reports. This, in spite of the great interest shown by the community with regards to said reports and forecasting.

Credibility regarding these weather reports is a fundamental aspect for an El Niño warning system to be used. Given that we only understand part of the climate’s variability, especially the one associated with El Niño, an El Niño early warning system must be applied only when this type of event is about to happen. It must be clear that regional weather reports are useful if they also include the existing and intense signal of El Niño. It is not clear yet how an early warning system should be structured, but there are some elements which must be considered at large. Thus, it is required for national forecasting centers to work with a number of specialists. It is also important to foster and maintain a close relationship with these users, in order to understand their needs regarding information on the weather, as well as to enable them to be aware of both opportunities and limitations of these weather reports. In this context, efficient means of communication must be available, for this information to reach a larger number of users. Radio stations have proven to be an effective mechanism regarding this purpose in Latin America and the Caribbean. The broadcasting of weather reports based on El Niño or La Niña signals and with respect to their opportunities and limitations, as well as the use of a simple and direct language, may help users to understand this information better than when these reports are written using technical terminology. A clearer understanding of forecasts is translated into strategic planning, which finally brings about economic benefits for many sectors.

Today, there exists the possibility of implementing El Niño early warning systems, which allow for planning and preventing disasters, due to the fact that legal standards related to the prevention of natural disasters are being improved in a number of Latin American countries. These changes have taken place after the negative experiences caused by El Niño phenomenon in 1997-98.

The use of forecasting, such as weather reports based on El Niño signals, constitute a recently developed activity. The best ways of broadcasting and using this information in the most appropriate manner have not been defined yet. However, this element is currently being taken into consideration, and it will be only by means of working in a collaborative and cooperative manner, especially between users and forecasting centers that this information will be highly beneficial for all. El Niño and La Niña are recurring phenomena which will eventually affect us again. Therefore, it would be convenient to develop strategies for reducing their negative impacts. We are not far from the day when the El Nino phenomenon may turn into an opportunity for many, instead of being the major threat it represents today.

For further information, please contact:
Jorge Luis Vazquez Aguirre, Project Coordinator
Oscar Arango, Regional Director of the World
Meteorological Organization (WMO)