Investment in Early Warning, Disaster Risk Reduction Crucial to Address El NiAo for Well-Being of Future Generations, Speakers Tell Economic and Social Council

The current El NiAo was among the most intense weather patterns of the last 100 years, affecting the food security of 60 million people and requiring nearly $3 billion in humanitarian response, the Economic and Social Council heard today amid calls to mobilize global action by promoting early warning mechanisms, building capacity, investing in disaster risk reduction and enhancing resilience.

“We must remember that El NiAo is not a one-off event, but recurring global phenomena that we must address for future generations – and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” Council President Oh Joon (Republic of Korea) said, opening a special meeting on reducing risks and capturing opportunities around El NiAo, organized at the request of the General Assembly.

Indeed, he said, extreme weather had grown more frequent, bringing about drought, fire, destruction of agriculture, disease and displacement. The Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau had all declared states of emergency due to drought from El NiAo, while Malawi had declared a state of disaster. As of February, almost 1 million children were facing acute malnutrition in Eastern and Southern Africa, due to food shortages induced by El NiAo. Coordinated and fortified action was needed.

Along similar lines, Robert Glasser, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, said the proportional impact of El NiAo on people and livelihoods was higher in low-income countries and small island developing States. It was vital to translate seasonal forecasts and risk data into risk-informed decision-making and actionable guidance. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) sought to increase by 2020 the number of countries with national and local risk reduction strategies.

Elena Manaenkova, Assistant Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that, while scientific understanding of El NiAo had increased, the current El NiAo was entering “unchartered territories”, interacting with climate change in ways the world had never before experienced. A vast and growing body of knowledge on El NiAo could now provide policymakers with the earliest warning on potential climate, water and weather problems within their regions. “This is not just about probability of occurrence, but ‘foreseeability’ of impacts,” she said.

In a keynote address, Juan Manuel Benites Ramos, Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation of Peru, discussing a culture of prevention, said his country had undertaken a number of steps, including the declaration of a state of preventative emergency in several parts of Peru, establishment of a dedicated council of ministers led by the Minster for Agriculture and initiatives to prepare the population.

The half-day meeting featured a panel discussion on “reducing risks and capturing opportunities” in which five top Government officials from countries affected by El NiAo shared experiences and discussed measures to reduce socioeconomic and environmental impacts. In the ensuing discussion, representatives of Government, civil society and the wider United Nations family outlined initiatives to meet short-term needs and build long-term resilience.

In closing remarks, Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, encouraged affected countries to share information and suggested that the Council serve as a platform in that regard. “It is time to translate commitments into action,” and make countries resilient to future El NiAos, he stressed.

Keynote Presentation

JUAN MANUEL BENITES RAMOS, Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation of Peru, discussed his country’s policy and culture of prevention vis-A�-vis El NiAo. It had undertaken a number of steps, including the declaration of a state of preventative emergency in several parts of Peru, the establishment of a dedicated council of ministers led by the Minster for Agriculture, and initiatives to prepare the population. This year, he said, $1 billion was set aside by the Government for preventative action. Sharing best practices would help in better addressing the phenomenon around the world, he said, before presenting a short video about his country’s El NiAo efforts.


The Council then held a panel on “reducing risks and capturing opportunities” in which top Government officials from countries affected by El NiAo shared their experiences and discussed measures to reduce the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of the phenomenon. Moderated by Pamela Falk, United Nations Resident Correspondent and Foreign Affairs Analyst, CBS News, it featured presentations by: Juan Manuel Benites Ramos, Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation, Peru; Mitiku Kassa, Commissioner for Disaster Risk Management, Ethiopia; Ahmed Sareer, Permanent Representative of Maldives and Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States; and Dian Triansyah Djani, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations. Telmo del la Cuadra, Officer on Risk Assessment of the Secretary for Risk Management of Ecuador, spoke via video link.

Ms. FALK, opening the discussion, said 90 per cent of all disasters occurring over the last 20 years had been due to weather-related events, affecting a total of 4 billion people and amounting $250 to $300 billion in annual economic losses. Countries in affected regions had seen weather patterns change, leading to loss of lives and livelihoods. It was important to understand the El NiAo phenomenon in the broader context of the increasing risks and in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Mr. KASSA, responding to a question from Ms. Falk on economic, social and environmental impacts, especially on food security, said his country had experienced the worst drought in 15 years, heavily impacting water, education and nutrition. The Government had allocated $381 million to address food security for 10.2 million beneficiaries. Existing structures for health, education, agriculture and other areas were channelling food requirements to those affected. A joint material requirements document, prepared with United Nations agencies, as well as international and local non-governmental organizations and others, outlined the model for a single response mechanism that mobilized the process and channelled the resources.

Mr. SAREER, to questions on the impacts on small islands and lessons learned, said the 2015-2016 El NiAo was among the strongest the world had seen. Earlier this year, Cyclone Winston had killed 44 people in Fiji, having followed an unusual path that had baffled meteorological models. In the Pacific, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau all had declared states of emergency. Because many countries lacked significant ground water supplies, it was difficult to deliver water to far-off shores, and where it was available, it was expensive. In his country, the Government had set aside $19 million for this year alone. Small islands were in the worst scenario in terms of capacity and preparedness.

Mr. DJANI said his country drew many lessons from its 1997-1998 experience with El NiAo and initiated several projects to sustain rice production. Peatland was a concern, as it was hard to put out fires in such areas when drought occurred. This season, it had been forecasted that El NiAo’s peak would come in December 2015, with the least impact coming in May.

Mr. BENITES RAMOS said the risk of natural disaster could not be eliminated, but only mitigated. Information for his country came from such sources as a national institute dedicated to the study of El NiAo and a national centre for disaster prevention. Preparations included fumigation campaigns to counter mosquito-borne diseases.

Mr. DE LA CUADRA, speaking by video link, described how Ecuador had, since 2008, reverted to a decentralized risk management system involving different public and private entities which participated in initiatives at all levels around the country. With decentralization, expertise was spread around the country.

In the ensuing discussion, representatives of Governments, civil society and United Nations agencies described the effects of El NiAo and asked panellists about ways to mitigate risks.

The representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the current El NiAo was among the most intense of the last 100 years, having affected the food security more than 60 million people. Nearly 80 per cent of the $3 billion humanitarian response was related to food security and agriculture. “This is a food and agricultural crisis,” she said, stressing that partnerships were needed. Early action could go a long way to saving lives at a much lower cost than acting after a disaster hit.

The representative of Colombia asked about coordinating risk management plans at the national and local levels, noting that her country had seen success in that regard. She asked about the use of data for risk-management purposes.

Mr. DJANI, to that question, said information was most important. A country’s central bureau of statistics should track issues such as food stocks, malnutrition and poverty. Coordination was also vital, especially for a country like Indonesia, which had 17,800 islands, requiring local chapters of all agencies involved in response plans. On disseminating information at the local level, he cited Indonesia’s use of the short message service – known as SMS – system, noting that university students focusing on engineering and technical studies must spend six months in a village before entering a formal bureaucratic structure, in order to gain experience in building infrastructure.

Mr. BENITES RAMOS said that, in Peru, where 14 of 24 provinces had been impacted by El NiAo, additional structures were in place. Ministers travelled regularly to impacted areas and each regional governor was active in those efforts. There were 2,200 municipalities, making it difficult to coordinate actions across all levels. A decentralized plan at federal, municipal and local levels was in place. On information, the United States had helped with modelling the impacts of El NiAo. It had launched a website that gathered information from various sources and the Government could post early warnings of weather events.

Mr. KASSA said coordination was crucial for disaster risk management. In Ethiopia, 11 ministries were involved in the national committee addressing disaster response, as were United Nations agencies and international and local non-governmental organizations. The national Disaster Risk Management Ministry served as chair. Various task forces, including for education, water and agriculture, carried out the work. All resources had been channelled through the coordination mechanism, as well as through existing Government structures. In the national meteorological ministry, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, known as Fews-Net, and Geo-Net, which provided real-time environmental and Earth observation data, were the major sources of data and also used to manage risk.

Mr. DE LA CUADRA elaborated on his country’s decentralized risk management structure. While early warning systems were in place, it was difficult to use them when dealing with multiple threats at the same time.

Mr. SAREER noted that small island developing States had little time to recover and to develop more resilient infrastructure. Maldives had learned much from the 2004 tsunami, but it still faced capacity constraints. It was thus asking the United Nations for assistance.

The representative of Vanuatu asked panellists about United Nations assistance to their respective countries, including in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He also asked about the most important things to do in the face of extreme weather events.

The representative of Viet Nam asked about increased preparedness at the grass-roots level.

The representative of Chile asked about the contributions and challenges of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and how it could help governance for disaster.

The representative of Germany asked about how El NiAo could be addressed at the upcoming United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III).

Mr. KASSA said United Nations agencies and partners should invest the lion’s share of resources towards disaster risk reduction. More investment was needed, he said, adding that preparedness at all levels was very critical.

Mr. DJANI said the three most important things were “preparedness, preparedness and preparedness” through local-level awareness raising, disaster mitigation and long-term reconstruction. With regard to Habitat III, he said there was “a sort-of proposal” regarding coastal cities and villages vis-A�-vis El NiAo, and that he hoped the outcome document would address El NiAo-related issues.

In a final round of questions and comments, the representative of Sweden said his country had been among the first responders to El NiAo, having given $50 million to the World Food Programme (WFP) for that purpose, and since contributed more than $100 million. It had announced $150 million for the next four years to respond to short-term humanitarian needs and build long-term resilience. He asked what issues and sectors were important to remember in making that transition.

The representative of the United States drew attention to the gaps between needs and resources, noting that her country had given $500 million to El NiAo responses globally and planned to do more.

Tony Barnston of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society said El NiAo was weakening, with temperature in the Pacific 0.5C above average, which he expected to be back to neutral by the end of May. However, the temperature of water below the surface in the eastern part of the tropical Pacific was below average, making La NiAa a likely phenomenon that should start by August.

The representative of Colombia said his country had seen the lowest rainfall in decades, with 70 per cent less in some areas, which had impacted availability of drinking water. Sixteen million people had been affected by drought or intense rainfall, with 3.7 million requiring humanitarian assistance due to the loss of arable land.

The representative of Honduras said El NiAo had caused a two-year drought in her country, with risks to food security and production structures. It needed cooperation from the United Nations for long-term resilience strategies. Recommendations from today’s event should be included in the Secretary-General’s disaster risk reduction report.

The representative of the International Labour Organization (ILO) urged a focus on micro and small enterprises, and ensuring resilience to shocks at the household level through social safety net protections, including job programmes to rebuild infrastructure in more sustainable ways. He asked panellists how to safeguard people’s productive capacity.

Mr. SAREER said several small islands had risk insurance, which provided up-front assistance. The most established system was in the Caribbean, where it was akin to business-interruption insurance. A similar facility was in the Pacific. The Sendai partnership offered a road map for planning and risk reduction, he said, cautioning against a silo approach.

The representative of El Salvador said his country had been among the most affected by El NiAo, notably drought followed by severe flooding. Some 262 municipalities were vulnerable, with 140 of them already dealing with severe drought, of which 54 municipalities in “acute crisis”. Eighty-three thousand families, totalling some 332,000 people, required immediate food aid. He urged more cooperation, requesting that today’s observations be included in the Secretary-General’s report.

The representative of Guatemala said Central American countries, especially in the dry corridor, had been impacted by drought and flooding. He urged investment in emergency measures and long-term resilience, requesting that today’s observations be included in the Secretary-General’s report.

The representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) said health impacts of El NiAo – disease, malnutrition and disruption of health services – would continue beyond this year. WHO was working to ensure access to health services and matching early warning mechanisms with needs, among other efforts. The human cost of delayed action could not be ignored.

The representative of Italy asked how small islands could be better incorporated into the international response framework.

The representative of the World Food Programme (WFP) described examples of the Programme’s resilience building programmes, including the Food Security Climate Resilience Facility, which released funding before a disaster occurred.

The representative of Nicaragua said the north and western regions of his country were particularly vulnerable to El NiAo and his Government had sought long-term solutions, having built water reservoirs. El NiAo had increased food insecurity for 2.5 million people. He urged increased cooperation and changed consumption patterns.

The representative of the Netherlands urged a cross-sectoral approach to El NiAo, noting that his country had brought disaster relief and assistance to countries after Cyclone Winston, and committed Euros 8 million to help countries in the Horn and southern Africa.

The representative of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the humanitarian response to the current El NiAo had been unprecedented. The Office had stepped up risk analysis, worked with Governments to make early investments, and advocated with donors for early and flexible funding. The Central Emergency Response Fund had allocated $15 million for El NiAo in 18 countries.

Closing Remarks

WU HONGBO, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, thanked participants for sharing their experiences and expertise. The meeting had heard about the tireless efforts and resilience of countries impacted by the El NiAo phenomenon and weather extremes that had brought so much suffering to communities. El NiAo was a phenomenon with a global impact, as well as economic, social and environmental dimensions that needed to be addressed in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda without leaving anyone behind. Discussions had demonstrated the impact on low-income and vulnerable countries where the El NiAo phenomenon put an additional burden on their capacities to manage risk and disasters.

In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the impact of extreme key weather conditions needed to be reduced, he said. It was time to translate commitments into action and make countries resilient to future El NiAos and other hard-to-predict extreme weather conditions. The best way of reducing the impact was to come together and mobilize effective global action with the promotion of effective early warning mechanisms, investment in disaster risk reduction and more cooperation. He encouraged affected countries to share and exchange information and suggested that the Economic and Social Council could serve as a platform in that regard.

SOURCE: United Nations