Two men in a buggy pulled by a Donkey on flooded ground
Abnormal rainfall as a result of the ongoing El Niño threatens flood prone and riverine areas of the eastern Horn of Africa | Credit: AMISOM via Iwaria Images

El Niño Brings ‘Important Opportunities’ for the Science of Early Warning

By Hannah Button

As the ongoing El Niño is expected to continue gaining strength in the coming months, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) is using scientific insights from previous El Niño years to predict how the climate phenomenon will affect food security.

In a Global Alert earlier this month, FEWS NET explains that, while projected impacts of the 2023-24 El Niño will vary by region, global food assistance needs are likely to remain high as the climate phenomenon dissipates by mid-2024.

“El Niño provides important opportunities for FEWS NET scenario development,” said Laura Harrison with the UCSB Climate Hazards Center. “El Niño modifies global atmospheric circulation in ways that make certain areas more likely to experience seasonal climate extremes. Since El Niños are predicted at relatively long lead times, these areas can be identified long in advance and then closely monitored using the latest observations and model forecasts.”

These long lead predictions of climate and weather patterns allow FEWS NET analysts to make early forecasts of acute food insecurity, supporting program planners, implementers, and policymakers to take early action. 

“It is an ‘evidence relay’ that translates and transmits critical information from climate scientists to food security analysts, and then on to decision makers, providing the robust foundation for actions taken to save lives and livelihoods,” USAID’s FEWS NET Team Leader Kiersten Johnson said.

According to its latest projections, FEWS NET anticipates that up to 110 million people across 31 countries will need food assistance through 2024 as El Niño contributes to already significant levels of acute food insecurity. 

Concern is particularly high for regions including Southern Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) where El Niño is likely to contribute to an increase in food assistance needs. El Niño events typically result in drier- and hotter-than-normal conditions in both regions.

“Dry and hot conditions have already impacted Central America and other areas in LAC, and El Niño will continue to elevate the odds of below-average rainfall, irregular rainfall distribution, and high temperatures into 2024,” Harrison said. “In Southern Africa, during past El Niños, dry conditions have often occurred during key rainy season months in the southeast, in Zimbabwe, northeastern South Africa, southern and central Mozambique, and southern Madagascar.”

As previous years have shown, below-average rainfall and increased temperatures associated with El Niño can cause harvests in Southern Africa and LAC to underperform, leading to staple food item deficits and price spikes.

Meanwhile, FEWS NET has projected a decrease in food assistance needs in the eastern Horn of Africa and Afghanistan – two regions impacted by recent multi-year droughts – as El Niño is expected to bring above-average precipitation.

“The combination of very warm sea surface temperatures and wind patterns during positive Indian Ocean Dipole events, in tandem with El Niño conditions, supports strong predictions for wet conditions during late 2023,” Harrison explained.

While FEWS NET expects increased rains to aid drought recovery in some areas of the eastern Horn, concern is high for riverine and low-lying areas that could face short-term population displacement, crop damage, and disease as a result of flooding from extreme rainfall.

FEWS NET's long-lead forecasts for life-saving food security projections demonstrate the critical value of investing in climate science for the well-being of people around the world. FEWS NET will continue to track the ongoing El Niño and provide updates on food security outcomes in the countries and regions it monitors. 

Subscribe to FEWS NET updates to receive food security forecasts directly in your inbox, and follow FEWS NET on Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates.

Adaptation, Climate
Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Climate Science, Climate Security, Education, Food Security, Health, Nutrition, Weather
Africa, Global
Hannah Button Headshot

Hannah Button

Technical Communications Specialist for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) Learning and Data Hub

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