How susceptible are we to El Nino?


by Randima Attygalle

Violent storms, flash floods and severe droughts have shaken the entire global equilibrium and their impact is felt on almost every economically viable human activity ranging from agriculture, production of export crops, fisheries, livestock and power generation. The devastating and unpredictable weather patterns can no longer comfortably place our farmer in the cycle of the traditional Yala and Maha seasons. A considerable proportion of these weather conditions recently experienced by us could be attributed to El Nino kicking in as predicted by international agencies and experts on climate change.

As the September 8, 2014 El Nino Update of the World Meteorological Organization notes, ‘the latest outlooks from climate models and expert opinion suggest that central tropical Pacific Ocean surface temperatures may warm again, potentially approaching El Niño levels during the coming three months. Atmospheric patterns associated with El Niño may accompany the warmed sea surface temperatures. The seasonal southward migration of the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone towards the equator may allow any further increases in sea surface temperatures to more easily increase cloudiness and rainfall in the central tropical Pacific, making ocean-atmospheric coupling more likely than in recent months. International climate model outlooks collectively suggest 55% to 60% likelihood for El Niño to become established between September and November, rising as high as 70% for the November to February period. Although there remains a range of possibilities for the strength of the likely El Niño, a weak event appears likely, though a moderate strength event cannot be discounted.’

What is El Nino?

The term ‘El Nino’ in Spanish refers to infant Christ, since the current usually begins during Christmas time in the Pacific near South America. The phenomenon is known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation or ENSO as a fluctuation in air pressure and wind patterns in the Southern Pacific accompanies it. What exactly occurs in an El Nino situation? "When we look at the major ocean currents flowing in the Pacific Ocean, the cold waters from Antarctic flow northwards along the eastern region of the Pacific adjoining the West Coast of South America. Then they flow westwards towards the south of the equator as the warm water S. Equatorial Current. What happens during an El Nino occurrence is, this current is reversed and warm water flows eastwards and then southwards along the coast of South America," explains Prof. W.N Wilson, Senior Lecturer of Geography, University of Colombo. Also, the winds which normally blow westwards over the South Equatorial Current also blow eastwards causing warm air to rise over the Eastern South American coast. "This results in heavy rains accompanied by storms and floods and dramatic shifts in weather patterns could occur in Asia as the high altitude winds move away from South America towards Asia."

Impact on Asia

El Nino’s impact on the Asian region was felt more significantly after the 80s, Prof. Wilson points out. We were last affected by El Nino oscillations between December 1997 and June 1998. After heavy rains of the second half of 1997, a long drought from December 1997 to June 1998 was experienced by the country with the absence of usual inter-monsoonal rains of April. The weather patterns are reversed as a result of the phenomenon with the wet weather conditions normally present in the Western Pacific moving to the east and the arid conditions common in the east appearing in the West. "Due to altered wind blowing patterns, the Asian region will experience severe droughts and at times flash floods and wind storms. "

The clear seasons we have been experiencing, marked by the North East and South West monsoons and inter-monsoons are now challenged by dramatic climatic changes. As an island nation, needless to say we are more vulnerable and as Wilson explains, the close proximity to the Bay of Bengal where diverse oceanic current patterns are conceived, makes us more susceptible to climate changes.

According to Met Department sources, El Nino’s impact on us would not be severe and from December to February next year, a ‘weak El Nino impact’ would most likely to be experienced. Based on the available research findings, if a ‘stronger’ impact is to be experienced, North, North Central, East and Sabaragamuwa provinces would have a lesser rain fall than the average, they said. The other provinces are likely to have heavier rainfall than normal in the event of a stronger El Nino effect. The chances of a strong effect are however, remote, according to these sources.

Land evaluation

Apart from its toll on agricultural pursuits, livestock management and power generation due to possible droughts, inevitable climate changes also call for mitigating their impact on the life and property loss due to unexpected flash floods. Resettlement of our work force in vulnerable areas, (the recent tragedy in Meeriyabedda being a bugle call), is another want of the hour in the wake of all these climatic changes. The contribution of the estate work force to the national economy is often undermined, especially considering the grueling conditions in which they toil. Resettlement cannot take place ad hoc, the mechanism will undoubtedly have to pay heed to proper planning and not forgetting the cultural fabric. A collective mechanism with the gramasevaka level, Divisional Secretarial level and above coming into play to give teeth to an effective resettlement program where communities will be productively employed should be a state priority.

Prof. Wilson points out resettlement and land evaluation should go hand-in-hand. "A land evaluation helps us identify inundated areas, areas vulnerable to droughts and landslides. Especially with arid climate gaining strength in drought-prone areas such as Hambantota, Moneragala, Mannar, Puttalam and Chilaw, this evaluation is imperative. Once such lands are classified, we could accordingly draw a Land Use Plan as in the case of Japan and Australia where this system is in effective operation."

Impact on crops

Speaking to Sunday Island, Senior Soil Surveyor, Keerthi Perera said that, as a result of dramatic climate changes resulting from various phenomena, soil of the tea lands are most susceptible to erosion. "The loss of tree cover on such land, resulting from 100% weeding depreciates its strength. The soil map and slope map could determine the best possible land for the re-planting of tea." Such mapping also helps in drawing up a Land Suitability Map (which is still absent in the country) in order to determine the best crop requirement for each region that would yield the best harvest, said Perera citing the Nepal experience as a successful regional example.

Assuring food safety by making optimum use of land for agricultural pursuits should be prioritized in a context of inevitable climate change, urges Dr. H.A. J Gunatillake, Director, Coconut Research Institute. "There is no mechanism of land management at present and a considerable percentage of land is wasted without been exploited in an economically viable way." In order to achieve sustainable self-sufficiency with any crop, be it paddy, coconut or otherwise, a carefully planned production mechanism coupled with competitive marketing strategy should be in place, he asserts. "The developed part of the world is geared to assure food security before climate changes realizing that crops/food and energy are co-related. Their contingency plans are in place from which we can draw a cue."

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