on 1st April 2016

El Niño in 1997 and 2015 – learning from the past

When the Kenya Meteorological Department announced the oncoming El Niño phenomenon during the October-November-December rainy (OND) season in 2015, a sense of panic spread across the country. People still remembered the impacts of the 1997/98 El Niño rains, the strongest El Niño on record until this year. The 1997/98 El Niño had devastating impacts, as the rains caused loss of crops and livestock resulting in food insecurity in most regions. Increased instances of cholera, malaria and rift valley fever due to poor sanitation and lack of potable water in flooded areas were reported, as well as significant loss of human life.

Although many feared that the 2015 El Niño rains would cause losses at a similar scale as in 1997/98, communities in Kenya were now better prepared. People have access to seasonal advisories: locally relevant livelihoods and risk reduction advice produced as an outcome of Participatory Scenario Planning (PSP) forums. PSP forums bring together meteorological services, local forecasters, community members, local government departments and service providers to combine and translate indigenous and scientific seasonal forecasts into actionable and locally relevant information. PSP was developed by CARE’s Adaptation Learning Programme for Africa (ALP) and first piloted in Garissa County in Kenya in 2011, before being rolled out in 2014 across the country by the Kenya Meteorological Department and the Agriculture Sector Development Support Programme (ASDSP).

Garissa County is a predominantly semi-arid area with an average of 250 mm of rain per year and temperatures of 36 degrees Celsius. Historically, Garissa’s main livelihood has been pastoralism, but in recent years irrigated crop production such as cultivation of tomatoes, pawpaw and mango along the Tana River has started to provide an additional source of livelihood. Yusuf Abdi, chief for Nanighi community, recalls the heavy rains caused by the El Niño in 1997/98, which resulted in flooding and deadly disease outbreaks. The early warnings did not meet the communities’ needs and they were not alerted about the severity of possible impacts. Yusuf believes that if they had had more information on the expected rainfall amount and advice on how to respond, the losses would not have been as severe.

Thankfully, in 2015, Yusuf Abdi has a different story to tell. After participating in the Garissa County Participatory Scenario Planning forum, Yusuf used the advisories produced to prepare his community for the rains, both crop farmers and the pastoralists. Over 4,500 people received the advisories directly through radio, TV, barazas (community meetings) churches, mosques, SMS and social gatherings and field days. The weather advisories proved to be very beneficial especially for farmers along the river, who avoided damage to their farm equipment by moving it to higher ground, and increased their production by taking advantage of increased rains and receding flood waters. Moreover, this time there was no loss of life or livestock. Although the worse impacts predicated did not materialise, the chief remains grateful they had the information to manage any scenario: “It is better to be over prepared than under prepared.”

In contrast to Garissa, Murang’a County is one of Kenya’s high potential agricultural areas where PSP has been successfully scaled up. The main livelihood in the region is rain fed crop production of cash crops like tea, coffee, bananas, as well as maize and beans for household consumption and zero grazed livestock. As in other parts of the country, the 1997/98 El Niño damaged crops, disrupted infrastructure and caused loss of life and property.

In 2015, the forecast for Murang’a County was a possibility of receiving highly enhanced rainfall similar to that of 1997/98. The PSP advisories for the season included use of hybrid seeds, vaccination of livestock and planting of fodder on soil conservation structures. According to the County Executive Committee (CEC) in charge of agriculture in Murang’a, thanks to the PSP, this time they were prepared for all possible scenarios, despite the fact that in the end the rains were only slightly above normal. As a result production of cash crops, as well as maize and beans increased significantly, whilst dams within the county were filled to capacity and no fatalities as a result of landslides were reported due to the reinforcement of the soil conservation structures.

The PSPs in Kenya have resulted in increased confidence and trust in the seasonal forecasts across the country, so that farmers now take the advisories seriously and benefit from the decisions they make. The 2015/16 El Niño forecast experiences in Garissa and Murang’a have demonstrated the value of multi-stakeholder face-to-face discussion forums, which PSP’s provide, in communicating early warnings and opportunities in such a way that people prepare for all outcomes, both positive opportunities and risk management strategies. Through this, they do not feel let down when the worst scenarios do not occur, but feel the information is useful ‘whatever the weather’.

Despite the fact that PSP’s are clearly helping people to anticipate and adequately prepare for the seasonal climate impacts and risks, there are still challenges due to limitations in the forecast information available, which include rainfall but not temperature. As noted in Garissa and Muranga, many counties in Kenya have been experiencing extremely high temperatures during February and March 2016, and the current rainy season is predicated to start late.  The consequences of this across the country are not yet known, but are likely to affect grazing and productivity into this and the next season. If La Niña follows El Niño, as often occurs, this could mean extreme drought later in the year. Including temperature information in the forecasts could help people to further anticipate potential impacts and make additional preparations based on this information. While this is an area that national meteorological services are being supported to develop, the broader lesson here is that anticipation of unexpected impacts is an important issue. PSP forums allow for such issues to arise and be discussed.

ALP and the WISER ENACTS programme for East Africa (implemented by CARE with Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society) are currently implementing a joint study to monitor how access to climate information through the participatory scenario planning (PSP) approach is supporting communities, local government sectors and other service providers to anticipate, prepare for and manage climate impacts and risks, particularly those related to the 2015/16 El Niño in Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger and Malawi. The results will be made available later this year.

By Jemimah Maina, Intern, Adaptation Learning Programme for Africa, CARE International

Jemimah Maina

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