The El Niño phenomenon of 2015-2016 is expected to be rival that of 1997-1998, which caused losses equal to 14.5 percent of Ecaudor’s GDP. El Niño causes a weakening of the trade winds, allowing heat to accumulate. The phenomenon shifts global weather, causing flooding in some areas and droughts in others.
Ecuador and Peru are the countries that are most directly affected by El Niño. If predictions are correct, the months ahead could cause debilitating floods, outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses, and catastrophic crop and infrastructure damage.
I write from coastal Manabi Province in Ecuador, which experienced the most fatalities in the country during the 1997-1998 event, totaling 104. There is awareness of severe El Niño predictions, but most people I’ve spoken with in the southern coastal town of Puerto Lopez think it will not be as severe as forecasts.
There have been warnings in past years that haven’t come to fruition, leaving many to think the coming months will be uneventful as well. Others are hopeful that an El Niño event could bring rains, ending a severe drought in the region. The current president, Rafael Correa, has significantly augmented the infrastructure in this South American country, leaving some to wonder how it would weather El Niño event.
“I do not think we’re ready [for El Niño],” says Roque Mendoza, the former coordinator for the Secretariat of Risk Management for Manabi Province. “Lack of training, and people not knowing what to do in an emergency, is what causes tragedies to be magnified.”
Although one Puerto Lopez hotel owner I spoke with constructed a flood wall behind his property after El Niño flooding in 2002 and another homeowner is adding fill to raise the elevation of their property, I see few other people taking preventative actions. Recent governmental infrastructure improvements may help the situation, if planned and executed with natural disasters in mind.
In Puerto Lopez, a major beachfront construction project is building bridges over rivers and burying beachfront power lines under a new road, which could help prepare the town for strong storms. Residents, however, are concerned by the fact that the beachfront road is now at a higher elevation than some of the surrounding homes, potentially contributing to flooding. There is also a sense among many residents that this project doesn’t address more urgent needs, such as waste water treatment and access to potable water.
The Chamber of Agriculture of Zone II (along Ecuador’s southern coast) is urging the government to declare a state of emergency before the arrival of El Niño. They believe the government has not adequately prepared for the phenomenon, by clearing canals and dredging rivers, giving a path for the removal of flood waters.
In contrast, the Peruvian government has already declared a state of emergency in over half of the country’s regions. There, the government has been cleaning out coastal riverbeds, building flood walls, and distributing mobile bridges to avoid communities getting cut off if existing bridges fail.
Fishing is one of the primary industries in coastal Ecuador, and an El Niño event could have major consequences.
As many fish species migrate to colder waters and others lose weight from lack of food, the industry could be heavily impacted, resulting in lower yields. This is difficult to prepare for, other than seeking out fish species that are less impacted by a change in ocean temperatures.
There is also concern about 500 square miles of shrimp pools at risk of flooding, causing fear in the shrimp sector.
Drought has plagued many farmers in Ecuador in recent years, disproportionately impacting farmers without access to irrigation or wells. The predicted storms and floods could cause crop damage and landslides.
In other cases, the damage is more indirect. The predicted El Niño flooding could kill snakes, causing a spike in rodent populations that could damage sugarcane, for example. Infrastructure damage could make roads impassible, making it impossible to sell crops and causing income loss.
In Ecuador, many of the farms cultivate a monoculture of just one agricultural product, with thousands of seasonal labors used for the harvest. In the Ecuadorian lowlands, this is most commonly bananas or sugarcane. Large plantations are often less resistant to natural disasters because crop diversity can help mitigate the risk of crop failure. In addition, large plantations may waste a viable harvest because farm workers cannot be brought in for the harvest during a natural disaster.
El Niño rains, however, could break the drought and offer relief along the southern coast of Ecuador. Some of the cropland in Manabi Province is now fallow due to drought, forcing inhabitants to seek out other forms of employment. It does, however, put more pressure on income from fishing and tourism, which would be at risk if the El Niño event does materialize as predicted.
Increased health risk
Increased precipitation can lead to a spike in mosquito-borne illnesses in Ecuador, including malaria, chikungunya and dengue. Damage to sanitation infrastructurecombined with an interruption in health services and lack of access to safe drinking water could lead to illness, especially among more vulnerable populations.
There have been public health campaigns in Ecuador to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses. Health professionals have walked around town, hanging posters and talking to business owners. Public service announcements on the topic are also relatively common, but unfortunately so are practices that encourage the breeding of mosquitoes.
Natural disasters often disproportionately affect certain groups of people more than others. Having savings can serve as a buffer against loss of income and increases the means to evacuate during natural disaster. Owning medical supplies allows people to treat themselves for minor injuries and prevents the development of more major health ailments. Living in durable homes that are not constructed in floodplains mitigates the risk and damage of flooding. Overcrowding of housing and lack of access to safe drinking water that plague developing countries increase illness and the spread of infectious disease.
Massive and rapid deforestation has occurred in Ecuador’s coastal forests in since the 1950s, where 70 percent of the coastal mangroves have been removed by the commercial shrimp industry.
Deforestation compounds the impact of El Niño. Loss of vegetation increases the occurrence of mudslides, which caused the most fatalities in Ecuador during El Niño event of 1997-1998. Deforestation also contributes to soil erosion, which clogs waterways and causes floods.
“Disasters are not only caused by nature, but also by human hands and lack of prevention,” says Roque Mendoza.