El Niño Frequently Asked Questions

El Nino 1

An El Niño event is the warming of the oceans in the central to eastern tropical Pacific which occurs, on average, every two to seven years.  Sea surface temperatures across the Pacific can warm by 1–3°Celsius  or more.  Average sea surface temperatures need to be consistently 0.8 degrees Celsius above normal for an El Niño to be declared.  

These temperature increases impact weather systems around the globe in different ways, with more extremes in weather patterns becoming more frequent. In some places El Niño can mean higher levels of rainfall while in others it can mean prolonged dry-spells that may lead to drought. 


El Nino 2

According to the seasonal forecast issued by the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (RCRCCC) and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) last December, the current  El Niño is expected to peak in the next three months and then dissipate during the first half of 2016.  The most significant impacts from El Niño are usually felt during a country’s rainy season when a disruption of the rains or too much rainfall can have the greatest socio-economic impacts, affecting agriculture, livelihoods, food security, health and safety.


El Nino 2b

 In the last 20 years, the world has experienced five moderate to strong El Niño events (1997-1998, 2002-2003, 2004-2005, 2006-2007, 2009-2010). There were super El Niño’s in 1972-73, 1982-83 and in 1997-98, the latter bringing record global temperatures alongside droughts, floods and forest fires.  Current average sea surface temperatures are the highest since 97/98 although they have not yet reached the highest temperatures observed during the 97/98 El Niño event.  The highest sea surface temperatures during El Niño events are typically recorded during November-December.  Therefore, it is likely that the 2015 El Niño will further strengthen and sea surface temperatures may yet meet or exceed those recorded during the 97/98 event

In the Philippines alone, the l997 El Niño reinforced drought conditions, which affected 74,000 hectares of agricultural lands in 18 provinces. More than 74 people died and almost half a million agricultural families experienced hunger. In Fiji, the 1997/8 wet season recorded the lowest ever rainfall at almost all recording sites across the country. The drought drove the Fiji economy into the worst recession in its history, hitting food and cash crops hard. 


El Nino 3


The two likely consequences of El Niño – droughts and flooding – may lead to increased food insecurity due to low crop yields, scarcity of staple food and effects on livestock. 

The warming of sea temperatures can also lead to severe impacts on fisheries. Both drought and flooding conditions would have an impact on access to safe water and improved sanitation. In drought conditions, communities may be left without sufficient safe water for drinking. 

In the Pacific it’s likely that water deliveries or desalination facilities may be needed across a range of countries if rain and bore hole water supplies dry up.  The challenge of distributing food and water rations to small islands over such an enormous area will be extremely costly and will also be logistically challenging. Conversely, situations of flooding could lead to contamination and/or damage of water sources and may fuel water and vector borne diseases. 

While the El Niño event is expected to peak in the coming months its impacts, especially on food security and livelihoods, may last as long as two years.  Just as El Niño will continue to bring a very active and high-ranking typhoon season, it will likely result in an earlier or faster-than-average shutdown of the monsoon. Drought becomes a more common occurrence, leading to energy, food and water insecurity.  

El Nino 8

There is increased confidence that Andaman Islands, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines will be unusually dry during December 2015 to February 2016. It is also anticipated that that eastern China, Japan, the Maldives and Taiwan will be unusually wet during the same period.

In the Pacific, there is an increased chance of reduced rainfall across Southwest Pacific and enhanced rainfall in central and eastern Pacific. In particular, there is a high probability of unusually dry conditions in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu while it is expected that Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu will be unusually wet. (See the latest map at the IFRC/IRI map room).


El Nino 4

In an El Niño year, the cyclone season usually runs longer and features a greater proportion of severe cyclones forming over a larger area.  This is because of the shift in wind patterns over the Pacific Ocean leads to more favourable conditions for typhoon development. 

Since El Niño is forecast to remain strong, this will keep waters warmer than average in the part of the Pacific Ocean where tropical systems usually develop. The rising air in this region leads to a high probability of tropical system formation. 

More tropical cyclones than normal are expected to happen in the southwest Pacific during the 2015-2016 season.  In Vanuatu, two to six named tropical cyclones are expected to happen between November to April. This is a higher number than normal.  It is likely that at least one of the tropical cyclones will be Category 3 or stronger. 

During El Niño events, tropical cyclone tracks can be less predictable than normal.  Tropical cyclones may also last longer, meaning more damage may happen if a cyclone survives in an area for a long time.  With more typhoon occurrences, people will be at risk to flooding, displacement, and other related impacts. 


El Nino 5

Different approaches have been taken by the IFRC to support National Societies whose countries are feeling, or are likely to feel, the effects of El Niño. Support has focused on monitoring of forecasts, information sharing and readiness planning. Three countries – Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu – have received financial and technical support from the IFRC to undertake a range of response activities within ongoing operations or through allocations from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF).

Due to drier-than-average conditions in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, IFRC has provided financial and technical support to the respective National Societies: 

  • Indonesia: IFRC has allocated funds – from DREF and a grant from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) – for Indonesian Red Cross Society (PMI) response to forest fires which resulted in parts of Borneo and western Sumatra being enveloped in a toxic haze. 
  • Papua New Guinea: IFRC has allocated funds – from DREF – for the Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society response to a drought caused by a prolonged dry spell that has been attributed to the current El Niño conditions and consequence of changing climatic conditions. With IFRC support, the National Society is prioritizing the Western Highlands region where populations have been severely affected by shortage of water and food supply.
  • Vanuatu: IFRC is supporting the Vanuatu Red Cross Society – within the context of an ongoing response to Tropical Cyclone Pam – to address community needs worsened by drought conditions attributed to the current El Niño. With support of IFRC, the Red Cross is conducting sensitization sessions around water, sanitation and the promotion of good hygiene. The Red Cross is also helping to rehabilitate wells and improve rainwater harvesting capacities. 

IFRC and National Societies are also coordinating with various actors – public authorities, UN agencies and other stakeholders – in the context of El Niño preparedness and response mechanisms. IFRC offices in Bangkok, Dili, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Suva have participated, and will continue to participate, in various inter-agency forums where preparedness and support plans are discussed.


El Nino 6

The IFRC’s main focus would be on addressing the needs of communities vulnerable to the humanitarian impacts of the current El Niño as well as contributing towards reducing the risk of disaster in view of a La Niña[1] which could follow in the wake of El Niño and would potentially create the opposite climate related impacts to El Niño.  A starting point is the ‘every time’ – based on experience from responses to previous El Niño and La Niña events as well as to other disasters. 

Working closely with the RCRC Climate Centre, the Asia Pacific Regional Office and Country-Cluster Support Teams (CCSTs) will continue maintaining a robust monitoring system, including of seasonal forecasts, to obtain a picture of emerging trends and impacts of the El Niño and related events. IFRC Country offices and National Societies will liaise with national meteorological systems for the same. This will contribute to informed decision-making and in turn timely action by the IFRC system. National Societies will interpret and package forecasts obtained from their national meteorological systems or wider for dissemination to communities at risk so as to increase public awareness and enhance early warning.

The IFRC and National Societies will continue to coordinate with a range of internal and external partners – including public authorities, donor agencies, UN system, INGOs and local civil society groups on El Niño preparedness and response mechanisms. Such coordination will contribute towards finding areas of working together, providing a platform to promote application of common approaches and minimizing duplication of efforts.

Steps will be taken to ensure that sufficient preparedness stocks of non-food items as well as WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene promotion) items and equipment are available for timely mobilization to areas that they may be needed.

Plans of action, outlining approaches and interventions by various National Societies, will be developed separately by IFRC country cluster support teams and country offices with support of technical units. The plans will be context-specific, similar to those of ongoing responses in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. 

Specific interventions to address needs related to food insecurity, may include feeding programmes, food distributions and provision of cash transfers for multi-purpose needs.  Where livelihoods are significantly impacted, appropriate actions to protect, recover and/or diversify livelihoods would need to be taken. These would be context-specific but could include cash transfers and in-kind support as well as vocational training or technical skill development. WASH priorities would be focused on restoring or improving access to safe water and improving solid waste management. These would need to be complemented with hygiene promotion activities aimed at improving behaviour and bridging knowledge with practice of proper hygiene.

To address health needs, activities such as health education sessions would be done alongside provision of enabling items such as mosquito nets and oral rehydration salts. In cases where health facilities were to be damaged, support would include rehabilitation and equipping of such facilities. Psychosocial support interventions would also be undertaken in communities as well as for carers who would be under high stress to respond to prolonged needs.  To meet the immediate essential household item needs, distribution of non-food items would need to be undertaken. In meeting shelter needs, context-specific solutions such as provision of emergency shelter items, support to rent shelter and assistance to repair or rebuild would have to be undertaken in affected communities.

Interventions to improve community preparedness and disaster risk reduction would include community awareness and public education campaigns, including in schools, to sensitize local authorities and communities on risks associated with El Niño and necessary risk reduction actions to undertake. Others include linking with national meteorological systems to complement dissemination or interpretation of forecasts to enhance early warning capacities in communities. Linked to early warning, would be support for early actions such as digging trenches, planting trees and grass for erosion control, identifying ‘safer’ areas for relocation of people at risk and installation of water harvesting systems to collect water from excessive rainfall for use when drier conditions set in.

[1] Here are some historical details on weather effects of El Niño and La Niña. It is important to note that every El Niño and La Niña event is different and, therefore, it is crucial to look at seasonal forecasts.