Recent data collected by climate scientists shows that conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean at the beginning of May 2014 were similar to those observed in May 1997, which was the last time the world witnessed one of the strongest El-Nino episodes.
El Nino events occur every 2–7 years and usually last for 12 to 18 months. Since 1997, the climate science community has improved their understanding of the nature, impact and predictability of the El Nino phenomenon. The socio-economic and even ecological impacts on of El Nino induced climate anomalies, such as droughts, floods and infectious disease outbreaks, often linger for a long time.
A paper published in Nature Climate Change by Wenju Cai of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) show that the number of El Nino events will stay pretty much the same but will be more intense and become more extreme or “super” El Ninos. The scientists warn that we should expect a higher frequency of devastating weather events, with severe implications for 21st Century climate. The fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) has shown that warming of the climate system is unequivocal with many of the observed changes unprecedented over decades to millennia.
Observed warming conditions have persuaded scientists to project almost a 70 percent chance that an El Nino will form in the next three months. Since the planet has warmed considerably since the last strong El Nino 17 years ago, it is highly likely that the 2014/2015 El Nino could be of the monster variety, with record shattering extreme rainfall in our part of the world.
To get a sense of the potential impact of the imminent 2014/2015 El Nino, it might help to remind us of the impacts of the 1997/1998 El Nino. Globally, the 1997/1998 El Nino claimed over 20,000 lives and caused damage to property and infrastructure estimated at $100 billion.
In Kenya, rainfall was 60 to 100-times heavier than normal. There was a large outbreak of the Rift Valley Fever (RVF) in northeastern Kenya. RVF is a viral disease transmitted by mosquitos, which affects humans and livestock. Pastoralists reported losing up to 70 percent of their livestock. Moreover, about 89,000 people were infected and 500 deaths were caused by hemorrhagic fever. The 1997/1998 El Nino also triggered an outbreak of malaria. Highland malaria was reported in West Pokot, Uasin Gishu, Kericho, Kisii, Nandi, Nyamira and Bomet. Unlike the coastal counties and the Lake Victoria basin, the populations who live in highlands generally lack immunity.
According newspaper reports, 2 million Kenyans were in need of emergency food aid by December 1997. Across the country, 300,000 households were displaced due to flooding. Most of the victims were in Tana River, Nyakach, Nyando, Budalangi, Garissa and Mandera. Cholera outbreaks were reported in the Lake Victoria region, Mombasa and Nairobi. Professor Shem Wandiga of University of Nairobi and his colleagues have shown that El Nino events tiger aquatic conditions, which allow proliferation of Vibrio cholera, the bacterium that causes cholera.
El Nino rains of 1997/1998 gutted Kenya’s transport sector. It estimated that about 100,000 kilometers of rural and urban roads were destroyed, paralyzing transport and communication in many parts of the country. In January 1998, the Nairobi-Mombasa highway was closed indefinitely after a 30-kilometer stretch was damaged by flash floods. The cost of infrastructure damage was estimated at about $ 670 million.
Kenya’s maize production dropped from average of 2.2 million metric tons in to 1.83 million, a 20 percent reduction, tons following the 1997/1998 El Nino rains. Researchers have shown that the El Nino events can reduce maize yields by more than 4 percent. However, the worst effect of the El Nino was on the second season crops, grown in the bi-modal rainfall areas of western, central and eastern parts of Kenya.
The forecast for the 1997/1998 El Nino was received by June 1997 but the government, civil society and local communities failed to act. We can find perfectly legitimate reasons for failure. But we cannot afford to bungle the 2014/12015 El Nino, especially when we know that its impacts will make the last El Nino look like a cakewalk. We must take immediate measures to manage its potential direct and indirect impacts.
Once bitten, twice shy. El Nino is a predictable natural disaster. It must not become a humanitarian disaster.