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El Niño in LAC: building capacities in disaster risk management and recovery

Dec 12, 2016

My first memories of El Niño and its impacts take me back to 1992, when I lived in Medellin. The memories were partly pleasant: along some of the main streets, electric bulbs were replaced by oil lamps that were lit in an almost ritual act by street performers every day.

This ritual continued for about 10 months due to the "energy-and-water-consumption-rationing law” - better known as “the blackout” - imposed by the government to deal with the crisis. During this period, supply outages persisted for up to nine hours a day.

The crisis was attributed to the drought caused by El Niño that, although not classified as severe, affected the country's hydroelectric power generation capacity drastically. The impacts on development were significant - between 2 and 2.5% of GDP for the period, an equivalent to 5-6 billion USD.1

In the early 1990s, the major cause of "disasters" and the observed impacts were directly attributed to the "unexpectedness" and "intensity" of the phenomenon. At that time, little attention was paid to the country's lack of capacity to foresee potential risks and, accordingly, design appropriate and timely management strategies.

How can this situation be compared with the 2014-2016 El Niño? The 2014-2016 El Niño is considered one of the strongest in the course of the last decades. UNDP has monitored the impact of El Niño in the region and promoted actions to strengthen countries' capacities for risk reduction and recovery.

The monitoring finds that the countries in the region have been affected in distinct ways. The main effects are associated with more intense and longer floods and droughts. In Central America, El Niño intensified an ongoing drought, affecting 3.5 million people. In Asuncion, Paraguay, about 15,000 families were affected by floods and remained housed in government-provided shelters for three months.

Although significant impacts have been reported at the global level, in the Latin American region, in general, these have not reached the severity of previous events such as those in 1982, 1992 and 1998. With early warning regarding the imminent onset of El Niño, several countries in the region formulated strategies and plans aimed at reducing, responding to, and recovering from potential impacts. Countries such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru allocated budget resources equivalent to between 0.05 and 0.5 per cent of GDP in 2014.

In some cases, these measures paid off. In Colombia, The National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGRD)2 reported that the drought reduced the Magdalena river flow to its lowest level on record, affecting water supply to more than 200 municipalities. Despite this, however, the director of UNGRD stated that "a national emergency was not declared; there was no blackout (in comparison to 1992). Response actions were taken to address a very strong El Niño. Without them, the situation would have been very different."  About 347 million USD (approximately 0.1% of 2014 GDP) was invested in prevention, preparedness, response and recovery for the 2014-2016 El Niño in Colombia. This amount of investment is much lower than the 1992 estimated impact.

Although each El Niño event is different, it is valid to ask ourselves if the actions realized by some countries in the region have influenced the reduction of reported adverse impacts. Understanding whether these interventions are part of comprehensive risk management strategies that address the underlying causes of risk or if they are still driven by the more traditional "disaster response" approach would be a significant line of analysis.

Answering these questions is key to the implementation of a sustainable development agenda that integrates, in an effective and efficient way, comprehensive risk management strategies to support the achievement of the goals proposed.

1Reporte de prensa El Tiempo, Colombia, 2 de marzo de 2016 https://goo.gl/PBjIeA

2Unidad de Gestión de Riesgos de Desastres

About the author

Ruben Vargas is a risk management consultant within the Sustainable Development and Resilience Cluster at the UNDP Regional Centre in Panama

Follow Ruben on Twitter @RDvargasf