The current El Niño cycle, one of the top three strongest on record since the phenomenon started being tracked in 1950, is expected to continue through the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Centers for Environmental Information. According to a report from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, the phenomenon is expected to transition to ENSO-neutral, meaning a period of relatively average temperature and atmospheric trends, in the late spring or early summer.

The effects of this year’s El Niño are already being seen across the globe, with episodes of both serious drought and strong flooding in Africa, hot and dry conditions throughout India, and periods of both flooding and below average precipitation throughout Central America and the Caribbean. For more information about the potential global impacts of El Niño, watch this video from FEWS.net.

According to the latest FEWS.net alerts, moisture deficits already exist in South Africa, Lesotho, parts of Angola, Swaziland, and Zambia; this low rainfall could impact seasonal agricultural production in the region. IRIN reports that as many as 30 million people are already food insecure in southern Africa, and this number could only grow if El Niño continues to hamper harvests. Parts of the Sahel, including Chad, are also experiencing below average rainfall that could impede food availability and access. The northern and eastern regions of Ethiopia are in the midst of the worst drought in 50 years, although both policymakers and experts have given assurances that the dry conditions will not lead to a rerun of the widespread famine seen in the 1980s. At the same time, IRIN reports that Ethiopia’s low-lying southern and western regions are experiencing heavy rains and potential flooding. East Africa could also face heavy rainfall, particularly in Kenya and Uganda; with higher than average rains, the mountainous region of this latter country would be at risk for landslides.

BBC News reports that aid agencies are ramping up efforts to ensure adequate emergency aid. According to Oxfam International, food shortages in southern Africa are likely to peak in February and March, and as many as three million people in the region will need humanitarian assistance before March.

Below average rainfall in Central America and the Caribbean, particularly in Nicaragua and Honduras, is expected to negatively impact the production of red beans during the Apante season, according to FEWS NET. Hot and dry conditions are also expected to cause a significant reduction in corn production, impacting subsistence farmers in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. While this could eventually increase prices in the region, staple food prices (for beans, rice, and corn) are thus far predicted to be stable during the first quarter of 2016. According to a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, approximately 3.5 million people are already being impacted by drought in Central America; in Haiti, as many as 560,000 people are in need of food aid due to low agricultural yields and a sharp rise in food prices.

Meanwhile, in 2015 India experienced its driest monsoon season in six years and the warmest September-December on record, leading to low reservoir levels and low crop yields throughout the country. The 2015 decline in agricultural output comes on the heels of similarly low yields in 2014, putting additional pressure on vulnerable populations. Wheat appears to be particularly hard hit; according to The Economic Times, wheat planting is already 27 percent lower than last year. With the winter in India likely to be warmer and shorter due to a combination of climate change and El Niño effects, both wheat quality and quantity could be negatively impacted.

In a recent report by FAO, the Agricultural Stress Index (ASI) is used to examine how El Niño events affect agricultural production and how policymakers can increase their populations’ resilience to extreme weather events. The report examines agricultural impacts from previous El Niño cycles spanning from 1986 to 2010 and concludes that the years when global weather patterns were dominated by El Niño events were associated with more global area affected by drought. However, the report points out that the connection between El Niño events and global agricultural production is difficult to ascertain with any certainty because El Niño cycles occur simultaneously with other global weather patterns, such as La Niña, and can also vary in duration and intensity. All of these variables mean that the impact of El Niño on agriculture and food supplies can be nearly impossible to predict. However, governments in areas where previous El Niño events have resulted in drought conditions should establish mitigation programs to increase the resilience of their agricultural sectors and to protect vulnerable populations.

Follow full coverage of the 2015-2016 El Niño cycle, both globally and regionally, with the Food Security Portal:

El Niño Raises Concerns about Food Security as Millions Face Threat of Drought, Floods
Situación alimentaria y climática en Centroamérica
Perspectiva climática regional hasta marzo 2016
Regional SSA Updates from FEWS.Net
FEWS.Net Report Predicts Flooding for Horn of Africa
Ethiopia Facing Severe Drought
Ethiopia’s 2015 Drought: No Reason for a Famine
High Temps and Dry Conditions Delay Planting, Raise Production Concerns
India Experiences Driest Monsoon in Six Years
Warmest Months on Record

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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