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EL NINO AND LA NINA PHENOMENA

It has been all over the news in recent weeks: One of the strongest El Niños in history could be brewing in the Pacific and will cause havoc all over the world.

The El Nino phenomenon was earlier thought to occur only infrequently. Today, we know that El Nino is part of the Pacific’s climatic cycle and the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has estimated occurrence of an average period of between three to five years.

There were some intense events in the late 1990s, and it looks like we are headed for some more. Analysis of these past events indicates a high probability that the natural catastrophes will continue to occur. According to senior scientist for climate change biology at, El Niños are, in fact, getting more intense , and the prudent thing to do is to take some action now; any action that will help lessen the blow…

The El Nino event of 1982/83 claimed 2,000 lives and caused Economic losses amounting to US$. 13 billion. The big El Niño of 1997–98 killed as many as 2,100 people and caused more than US$ 33 billion in property damage worldwide. Many people are now starting to worry about what the coming El Niño” may leave in its wake. This is because the coming El Nino is expected to be the strongest in 65 years.

Historical accounts dating back as much as 400 years report that Peruvian fishermen repeatedly observed mysterious changes in the waters off their coast at the Pacific Ocean. During the normal times, the water there is very cold, flowing up from the South towards the North. However after every two to seven years, the flow is reversed and the water flows from North to South and the water temperatures are unusually very high. This phenomenon showed its marked effect around Christmas time, and therefore was referred to as El Nino, the Spanish expression for the Christ Child. The term stuck and has continued to be used to refer to this Pacific weather anomaly right up to the present day.

The El Nino has a counterpart, La Nina (Spanish for ‘little girl”), which denotes heightened trade wind activity that results in unusual cooling of the waters in the Eastern Pacific. The effects of La Nina are essentially the same global distribution as El Nino events, but the effects are reversed, with unusual dryness and extreme drought experienced in Equatorial Africa.

The La Nina phenomenon is characterized by un-usual cooling of the surface water. Trade winds from the east raises very cold water from the depths of the ocean (200m) to the surface, which cools the top layer of the water by an average of 2 degrees Celsius.

Scientists around the world are studying the link between Natural Catastrophes and the weather anomaly, El Nino, but have not yet gained much insight into the reasons for the failure of the trade winds.

EFFECTS OF THE EL NINO

El Nino leads to flooding conditions. The floods cause damage to property, livestock and displacement of thousands of people.

Developing countries dependent upon agriculture and fishing, particularly those bordering the Pacific Ocean, are the most affected. The low lying areas usually bear the brunt of the floods mainly from the upland areas.


More generally, El Niño can affect commodity prices and the macro economy of different countries, in different ways, some positively. It can hamper the supply of rain-driven agricultural commodities; reduce agricultural output, destroy construction and services delivery activities; create food-price hikes and generalized inflation; and may trigger social unrest in commodity-dependent poor countries that primarily rely on imported food.

EL NINO IN EASTERN AFRICA

Seasonal forecasts for the Eastern African Countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi are predicting a mild to moderate El Nino effect which is associated with higher than normal rainfall in East Africa. Based on the experience of the last major El Nino (1997) this is expected to result in significant flooding in some parts of the region affecting the same communities whose health and livelihoods have been weakened by extreme drought. Displacement, loss of livestock assets and increased risk of diseases are expected. It is estimated that about 25, 000 people will be affected.

El Nino rains are expected to start in late September and peak in October in the East African Region. There are a lot of warning notices being given by the Meteorological Departments about it, but seemingly, nothing tangible is being put in place to avert the impending crisis.

Apart from the flooding menace, the extreme weather conditions related to the El Niño cycle bring about increases in the incidence of epidemic diseases. For example, the El Niño cycle is associated with increased risks of some of the diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, such as malaria, dengue, and Rift Valley fever.

A severe outbreak of Rift Valley fever occurred after extreme rainfall in north-eastern Kenya and southern Somalia during the 1997–98 El Niño.

Specifically, the El Nino floods will lead to:-

  1. Damaged infrastructure (roads, bridgesbuildings),
  2. Damage to housing by landslides, inundation and destruction, resultingdisplacement of people,
  3. Surface and ground water pollution resulting in increased risk of water borne disease,
  4. Damage to crops (also increased production in some areas).
  5. Livestock deaths and disease,
  6. Outbreaks of disease, especially Cholera, malaria, and Rift Valley Fever,

MITIGATING FACTORS:

Some of the mitigating measures that can be taken by the authorities before the occurrence of the El Nino floods to minimize the effects are:-

  1. Clearing of drainages and water ways
  2. Creatingfood, water and medical reserves
  3. Provision of temporary shelters,and bedding facilities
  4. Creating of medical reserves
  5. Movingpeople in areas prone to floods and landslides to higher grounds
  6. Have evacuation boats and Life saving jackets in place
  7. Put rescue Helicopters on standby.
  8. Train people on first Aid and evacuation techniques
  9. Avail stocks of non-food items (NFIs), medical, and water and sanitation (WatSan) items Promotion and prepositioning of WatSan kits will enable the Societies to respond quickly and effectively to needs.

Early preparations of information, education and communication (IEC) materials for hygiene

The main objective of this preparedness is to:-

  1. Reduce the numbers of deaths, injuries and impact from disasters.
  2. Reduce the number of deaths, illnesses and impact from diseases and public health emergencies. ·
  3. Increase local community, and civil society and other bodies capacity to address the most urgent situations of vulnerability.
  4. Reduce intolerance, discrimination and social exclusion and promote respect for diversity and human dignity.

These actions will however not stop the El niño from occurring and during and after the El Nino, the following actions will be necessary:-


In order to pre-position relevant relief items, supplies and resources should be put in place to enable quick response these needs.


INSURANCE AND REINSURANCE

Insurers and Reinsurers offer protection against the consequences of natural catastrophes. Essentially, the Insurance Policies cover losses resulting from Earthquakes, Seaquakes, Floods and Windstorms.

Reinsurers also through the various arrangements give the required protection to the Insurers, based on the premise that the natural catastrophes are un- related. This has been clearly defined by Reinsurers including the hour’s clause in the contracts. Climatic phenomena such as El Nino and La Nina contradict this premise of un- relatedness. This has made it difficult if not impossible for our regional Insurers and Reinsurers to give distinct El Nino and La Nina Covers. They have relied on the ordinary flood covers to deal with the catastrophe.

In the US, however, direct insurers are already offering insurance policies that provide protection against the consequences of extreme weather phenomena. Under these policies, an event can be claimed as a loss if the temperature or the rate of precipitation actually measured deviates significantly from the averages determined for the specific region over a long period of time.


The same approach would also not be conceivable for Reinsurance, in that the cover provided under El Nino/La Nina treaty would come into play when one of the above criteria are fulfilled. The resulting loss events could then, in light of a new understanding of the concept of event lead to all El Nino and La Nina caused losses being covered as a single loss event under a Reinsurance Contract. This would provide the Reinsured’s with the substantial advantage that they would have to pay their deductibles only once , while under traditional reinsurance, the deductible would apply to each event.

As was indicated earlier, research in El Nino and La Nina phenomena still has a number of unanswered questions. Feasible concept for covering the consequences of these weather anomalies are also still under developed. It is to be assumed, however that as scientific advances are made, and improved insurance and Reinsurance protection will also become possible.

BY KENNETH OBONG’O OBALLA

TRAINING MANAGER

ZEP-RE (PTA REINSURANCE COMPANY).