UN El Niño debate emphasizes need for integrated action

01 May 2024

A dedicated UN debate on El Niño has called for an integrated approach to address the social, economic, environmental and humanitarian challenges posed by El Niño. It took place against a backdrop of devastating flooding which has claimed dozens of lives in East Africa, searing heat in Asia and drought in parts of South America and southern Africa. 

The Joint Event of General Assembly and ECOSOC "El Niño 2023-2024: Actions for Safety, Sustainability and Resilience of People and Planet" showcased the role of the meteorological community. It highlighted the need for more strategic investment, informed by science, in early action capabilities to safeguard the most vulnerable.

It also underscored commitment to the Early Warnings for All initiative, co-sponsored by WMO, which seeks to ensure that that every community has access to timely and actionable warnings.

“El Niño has been a source of extreme weather patterns globally. These have the effect of undoing decades of developmental progress – compounding the especially already dire situations of Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States, all of which are particularly vulnerable to external shocks,” said General Assembly President Dennis Francis.

The impacts of the 2023-2024 El Niño underscore the need to better manage future events, said WMO Secretary-General Celeste Saulo, citing the economic costs and damage to food, water and energy security, health, environmental protection and marine ecosystems.  

“In parallel, human-induced climate change is intensifying impacts of El Niño/La Niña episodes and   increasing climate risks,” she said in a video message.  

“El Niño and La Niña events can be predicted well in advance. This allows society to prepare and thus reduce economic losses and minimize risks to lives and livelihoods. Studies show El Niño Early Warning Systems can provide a two-fold to nine-fold return on investment. Such predictions are a core part of the Early Warnings for All initiative which seeks to expand early warning systems to everyone in the world,” said Celeste Saulo.  

More than 60 Member States and numerous stakeholders took part in the thematic event. It highlighted the critical role of science to guide preparedness and response, as well as the importance of developing climate services and fostering innovation in forecasting technologies.  

“The value of anticipatory and early action, informed by accurate forecasting and data is crucial. We are reminded that learning from past El Niño episodes equips us for more effective responses to future events. Our focus must shift toward implementing preventive measures well before impacts are felt, and increasing the capacities of the most vulnerable,” said the ECOSOC President Paula Narvaez in concluding remarks.  

A conference at the united nations with delegates seated, listening to a female speaker on a large screen.
WMO SG during UN debate on El Niño

Extreme Events

El Niño is a naturally occurring phenomenon and a major driver of the global climate. The 2023/24 event, which began in mid 2023, was one of the five strongest on record, according to WMO.  

Coupled with human-induced climate change, the 2023-2024 El Niño contributed to extreme heat across the planet, culminating in the warmest year on record and unprecedented marine heatwaves.

Although it is now weakening, it will continue to affect temperatures and weather patterns in different parts of the world.  

Around 40 to 50 million people are currently affected in 16 countries, said Reena Ghelani, the new Climate Crisis Coordinator for the El Niño/La Niña Response.

“These are the countries that are facing the climate crisis,” said Ms. Ghelani, adding that adaptation efforts are key at a time when the UN Secretary-General released $54 million to “get ahead” of the situation and will soon announce more funding.

But, she warned, much more is needed, noting that a similar response plan had in the past cost $3 billion.

Notable impacts include an exceptionally heavy rainy season in East Africa. Flooding in Kenya has affected 200,000 people and killed more than 100 people. More than 150 people were killed on 25 April in flash floods in the United Republic of Tanzania. Somalia and Ethiopia are also affected, worsening an already fraught humanitarian situation.

Drought in southern Africa has triggered crop shortfalls and rising commodity prices. El Niño is also contributing to intense heat in Asia.

There have also been drier than usual conditions observed across much of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. Additionally, the Panama Canal experienced restricted traffic due to low water levels, while the Amazon suffered a severe drought, marked by record-low water levels in the Rio Negro, Brazil.  

Role of the WMO community

A panel discussion highlighted the role of the WMO community. WMO coordinates regular El Niño/La Niña updates. These are complemented by monthly Global Seasonal Climate Updates, and regional climate outlooks from a network of Regional Climate Centres.  

In the panel discussion, Yolanda González, Director, International Center for El Niño Phenomenon Research, stressed the importance of meteorological services for many different sectors such as energy, food and water.  

Edson Nkonde, head of the Zambia Meteorological Department, said the impact of El Niño-related drought in the Southern African nation were severe. There is need to strengthen user-friendly information for communities to support action at local level. Scientific information needs to be shared in a way it can be trusted and there is a need to integrate science and local knowledge.  

Dyanne Marenco, President of the Costa Rican Red Cross and Boatametse Modukanele, Acting Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Botswana, also spoke. Academia was represented by Andrew J. Kruczkiewicz, Senior Staff Associate II, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Columbia Climate School. 

It is important not to just focus on El Niño in isolation, but to support decision-making with seasonal prediction services, supporting national planning processes, upon a backdrop of a changing climate risk landscape, speakers said.

However, many National Meteorological and Hydrological Services are not equipped to be able to provide such services. WMO is therefore prioritizing efforts to strengthen the capacity of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services  in developing, least developed and small island states to deliver on their mandate.

Four individuals posing for a photo in a conference room with a large display screen showing a seating area in the background.
Y. González, B. Woods Placky, E. Nkonde, Y. Ghelani, D. Marenco

Outcomes of the event

In its resolution 78/152, the General Assembly requests the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Economic and Social Council to jointly organize a one-day dedicated thematic event with the support of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the World Meteorological Organization and other relevant entities of the United Nations system, to discuss action-oriented recommendations to address the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of the 2023/24 El Niño phenomenon on affected countries, in order to provide substantive input to the report of the Secretary General to be submitted to the General Assembly at its seventy-ninth session.

Several key messages emerged from the thematic event discussions.  

These included:  

  • It is crucial to sustain and improve action and share knowledge across borders to inform global responses and resilient strategies.
  • Science, technology and data plays a crucial role to guide preparedness and response. The transformation of data into proactive planning is pivotal and will necessitate robust political commitment, alongside significant investments in developing climate services and fostering innovation in forecasting technologies.
  • The value of anticipatory and early action, informed by accurate forecasting and data is crucial. Such strategic investment in early action capabilities is essential for the proactive mitigation of the effects of El Niño and for safeguarding the most at-risk communities.  
  • There is an urgent need for sector-specific preparedness plans, particularly for agriculture and tourism as they are disproportionately affected by El Niño, specifically in Africa, the Pacific and Latin America. Such plans should incorporate traditional knowledge, scientific research, and technologies tailored to ensure sectoral resilience, which is integrated and interconnected.  
  • There is a need for increased investment mechanisms and policy frameworks for disaster risk reduction and resilience building.