2 July 2014

El Nino draws attention to Asia Pacific drought monitoring systems

El Nino draws attention to Asia Pacific drought monitoring systems

It has recently been confirmed that there is a strong possibility that an El Nino event is going to impact global weather this year for the first time since the turn of the decade. Coming as the result of weakening trade winds over the tropical pacific, the result is heavy rains in some regions and zero rains in others. According to the Met office, this brings a very real chance of “major climatic impacts”.

It is in Australia, India and Indonesia where the potential of drought is set to rise considerably, with the likelihood of wildfires, poor crop yields and rising food prices also being potential consequences. Despite this, it is currently considered that this year's El Nino is likely only to be mild, similar to the last in 2009/10. This should limit, to a certain extent, the impact. One of the worst El Nino's in recent history occurred in 1997/98, during which time South East Asia experienced devastating droughts.

Not only is it El Nino, and La Nina, which are cause for concern, however. Overall climatic shifts are also leading to the increase in droughts globally. This is caused by the effect global warming has on evapo-transpiration, which is likely to not only increase the prevalence of drought in affected areas, but also to cause an expansion of the land affected by drought.

The increasing prevalence of drought due to global warming and the potential for El Nino has led to UN agencies seeking to improve the early monitoring of drought, as well as developing systems to reduce its impact. Earlier this week - on Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - various UN agencies met together with government officials and regional experts to discuss such an effort, in Colombo - the Sri Lankan capital.

The forum was organised in partnership by the Sri Lanka Ministry of Technology and Research and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and it was the importance of access to satellite data that took centre stage. Indeed, the ESCAP developed a Regional Drought Mechanism back in 2013 as a platform to deliver free and fast satellite data, as well as training and various products, to assist countries prone to drought in the region. Access to such important pre-warning data does, however, still remain a challenge in the region.

This current initiative has been designed to help reduce the human and economic impact of droughts in the region, which have, according to Ms. Shamika Sirimanne, Director of ESCAP’s Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division, "affected more than 1.3 billion people and caused damages of over $53 billion" over the past thirty years.

It is hoped that by developing the Regional Drought Mechanism, which is currently being piloted in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the early recognition of drought and the limiting of its impact could be achieved across the region. It was unanimously agreed at  the forum that the cooperation and collaboration of all relevant ministries and initiatives across the region would be a crucial component of achieving this.

The outcomes of the forum will influence the progression of the Regional Cooperative Mechanism, and will help to evolve the national disaster management plans of the countries involved. With agriculture such a key industry for both the national economies of the various nations, as well as a livelihood for a large proportion of their populations, this is a key approach, which is likely to play an increasingly important  role in the years to come.

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