Tantrums of the "Christ Child"

Tantrums of the TIME was when people looked heavenward and prayed, "Ye gods, give us rain, keep drought away." Today, there are those who pray, "Give us rain, keep El Nifto away."

El Nifio and its atmospheric equivalent, (a sea-level pressure 'seesaw') called the Southern Oscillation, are together referred to as ENso, and are household words today. Meteorologists recognise it as often being responsible for natural disasters worldwide. But this wisdom dawned only after countries suffered, first from the lack of knowledge, and then from the lack of co-ordination between policy making and the advances in scientific knowledge.

Put simply, El Niho is a weather event restricted to certain tropical shores, especially the Peruvian coast. The event has diametrically opposite impacts on the land and'sea. The Peruvian shore is a desert. But every few years, an unusually warm ocean current - El Nifto - warms up the normally cold surface-waters off the Peruvian coast, causing very heavy rains in the early half of the year. And then, almost miraculously, the desert is matted green. Crops like cotton, coconuts and bananas grow on the otherwise stubbornly barren land. These are the Peruvians' anos de abundencia, or years of abundance. The current had come to be termed El Niho, or the Christ Child, because it usually appears as an enhancement of a mildly warm current that normally occurs here around every Christmas.

But this boon on land is accompanied by oceanic disasters. Normally, the waters off the South American coast are among the most productive in the world because of a constant upwelling of nutrient-rich cold waters from the ocean depths. During an El Nitio, however, waters are stirred up only from near the surface. The nutrients-crunch pushes down primary production, disrupting the food chain. Many marine species, including anchoveta (anchovies), temporarily disappear.

This is just one damning effect of El Nifio. Over the years its full impact has been studied, and what the Peruvians once regarded as manna, is now seen as a major threat. To start with, El Nifio has affected the entire economy of Peru, forcing it to repeatedly change its main economic support base.
Agent of ruin The desert shores ofPeru ofyore had abundant supplies offer-tiliser in the form of mountains of guano - the droppings of sea birds. Peruvians had traditionally used this as fertiliser. But by the early 1900s guano became a gold-mine, and exploitation reached alarming levels. The guano that had collected over centuries was removed in practically no time. In 1909, the Guano Administration was set up and, among other things, limited its export to only the quantity renewed annually. But this meant that the guano industry was now held ransom to the El Niflo. During an ENso event, anchoveta, the staple diet of the birds, are hard to come by. Guano production drops and so does the amount exported. This is what happened in 1925, 1939 and 1957.

By the 1950s, however, pelagic fish, especially anchoveta, replaced guano as the new Peruvian gold-mine. By 1970, anchoveta exports earned 1/3rd of all Peru's foreign exchange, making it the world's premier fishing nation. And then disaster struck. In 1972, an ENSO event decimated the anchoveta population, and with it, the Peruvian economy. Related sectors like shipbuilding, net producing, and fish processing were also wrecked. After that the Peruvian government nationalised the fishing industry to prevent overfishing and hence make it less susceptible to the El Niflo. But the industry never recovered.

The impact of El Niiio was not restricted to Peru. With international guano supplies dwindling, farmers switched from corn and wheat production to soyabean, compounding an already existing international food shortage. That year, the former Soviet Union experienced a severe drought. The USA exported huge amounts of grain to the Soviet Union, leaving little for the other countries. The 1976-77 ENSO event caused major weather abnormalities in North America. The west coast suffered a severe drought that winter, while the east coast was battered by repeated snowstorms, as temperatures dropped drastically. The 1972-73 and the 1976-77 events changed the common perception of the ENSO phenomenon. It now became the bete noire of meteorologists, who recognise it as a major cause behind global natural disasters. The us government set up 2 programmes to study climate anomalies - the World Climate Research Program and the National Climate Program - in which ENSO figured as a major research topic. Simultaneously, the southeast Pacific countries, including Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Columbia, set up the Regional Prog;amme for the Study of the El Niho Phenomenon (ERFEN).

In 1982, various international scientific unions, including the World Meteorological Organisation and the International Council of Scientific Unions, set up a steering group to study these processes in the tropical oceans and its impact on global climate.

But they were almost thrown off their feet, as that very year, coastal Peru and Ecuador were lashed by demonic storms. Floods ripped out bridges, roads, and oil pipelines. Towns were buried under mud. Agriculture was devastated, first by floods and then by swarms of insects that proliferated in wet conditions. The mean sea level rose by 60 cm and many lowlying communities were inundated. Coastal storms also wreaked havoc on the Californian coastline, while New Zealand, Australia, India and southern Africa reeled under dreadful, droughts.

Knowing the enemy
Scientists now realised that they knew precious little about ENso. They concluded that to predict an impending ENso event with any certainty they'd need to continuously monitor the oceans, the atmosphere and their interactions. By 1983, governments around the world began to realise the need to incorporate scientific information in policyrnaking and planning. Peru and Brazil tried to do this and were moderately successful in their efforts.

In 1984, the scientists predicted that the year would be a normal one for Peru. Heads of agrarian organisations, banking officials and the ministry of agriculture were informed of this. The agrarian plan for that year was drawn up on this assurance, and the yields were high.

The monitoring OfENSO is now carried out by the National Studies of the El Niho Phenomenon (ENFEN). Since 1984, ENFEN presents its annual forecast every November to the farming community at large and to government agencies, who then decide *pon a production strategy. In 1986 and again in 1991, forecasts of an ENSO event the next year were spread throughout Peru. It helped farmers and policyrnakers to determine the combination of crops to be sown. These years saw higher agricultural yields than earlier ENSO years, when no forecast information had been available.

Brazil took a step towards incorporating science in policy-making a little late. In 1982-83, much of northeast Brazil was affected by drought. The share of agriculture in the gross national product fell by about I I per cent. Fourteen million people, mostly small farmers, were affected. The national exchequer shelled out drought assistance. National indebtedness spiralled.

In 1988 the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceara set up the Foundation for Meteorological and Hydrological Resources (FUNCEME@, to help prevent a 1982 replay. It receives information fromUSA, France and Germany to help it make weather forecasts. In early 1991, FUNCEME predicted an ENso related drought. A red alert was issued through a grassroots campaign. The state governor and FUNCEME members travelled widely, trying to convince the farmers that they'd benefit from FUNCEME's recommendations of planting cotton, beans and corn, using seeds of short-growing cycles, which might be less productive but are more drought-resistant.

The campaign also addressed the issue of water conservation. The governor decided to control the amount of water consumed in Fortaleza town. Thus, the reserves, which would normally have been depleted by December, were available right up to next April.

IFUNCEME had predicted a rain shortfall for 1992. Rainfall was 23 per cent below normal. But agricultural output was only margin ally less than the normal.

Interestingly, some other states in northeastern Brazil also reported drought in January 1992. FUNCEME had passed on its forecast to these states too, but they had not modified their strategy accordingly.

Current scientific programmes on ENso attempt to predict events, in contrast to the earlier reactive programmes. Today, the forecasting game has gone global, with CLIVAR - or Climate Variability - having been set up in January 1995, to develop an internationally operational climate forecasting system. CLIVAR was a follow-up to the Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere (TOGA), set up in 1985 under the World Climate Research Programme of USA. Before TOGA, ENso research had been largely national affairs, whether in the USA or in the South American countries, so intimately associated with ENSO. But governments everywhere are now geared to a global approach to handling El Nifto, the enfant terrible.

Sources. Responding to El Nifto by Maryam Golnaraghi and Rajiv Kaul, in Environment, Vol 37, No 1,; El Nifio: Historical and Paleoclimatic Aspects of the Southern Oscillation, edited by Henry F Diaz and Vera Markgraf, and Natural Disasters by E A Bryant