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Business News/ Science / News/  How El Nino, a ‘silent killer’ could impact health, food, economy; poses 'new risk, but not a gamechanger' experts say

How El Nino, a ‘silent killer’ could impact health, food, economy; poses 'new risk, but not a gamechanger' experts say

El Nino may lead to extreme weather events, diseases, food insecurity, and economic losses.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks past the carcass of sheep that died from the El Nino-related drought in Marodijeex town of southern Hargeysa, in northern Somalia's semi-autonomous Somaliland region, April 7, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar/File Photo

The El Nino weather phenomenon is showing signs of intensifying, potentially leading to heightened temperatures and extreme weather events in a year already marked by their prevalence, according to experts. The World Meteorological Organization recently confirmed the commencement of the first El Nino in several years, AFP reported.

El Nino, a naturally occurring warming of Pacific Ocean temperatures, typically spans nine to twelve months, with projections suggesting its intensification towards the year's end. Scientists have indicated that the impact of El Nino, combined with human-induced global warming, could extend beyond mere weather fluctuations.


The warming trend resulting from El Nino could have significant health implications. Vector-borne diseases, like malaria and dengue, have been observed to spread as temperatures rise. Experts caution that the conjunction of El Nino and ongoing global warming could exacerbate this trend.

"We can see from previous El Ninos that we get increases and outbreaks of a wide range of vector-borne and other infectious diseases around the tropics, in the area that we know is most affected by El Nino," stated Madeleine Thomson on August 10, head of climate impacts at the Wellcome Trust charity as reported by AFP.

The surge in these diseases stems from the dual effects of El Nino: abnormal rainfall expanding breeding sites for disease vectors such as mosquitoes, and elevated temperatures accelerating the transmission of various infectious diseases. For instance, an El Nino event in 1998 was linked to a significant malaria outbreak in the Kenyan Highlands.

Also read: Mint Explainer: How a strong El Nino would hamper India’s monsoon & agriculture

Health Concerns

While it's complex to precisely quantify El Nino's role in extreme weather events like wildfires, heatwaves alone pose substantial health hazards. Gregory Wellenius, leading a climate and health centre at Boston University, emphasised the threat of heatwaves. "It's sometimes named the silent killer because you don't necessarily see it as a threat," Wellenius said. "But heatwaves in fact kill more people than any other type of severe weather events."

The toll from heatwaves was evident last summer when over 61,000 individuals are estimated to have lost their lives due to heat-related issues in Europe, a period devoid of El Nino influence. July 2023 has recently been verified as the hottest month in recorded history. Wellenius said, "Preparation is much more effective than emergency responses."

Also read: Climate change: Delhi may suffer losses of 2.75 trillion by 2050

Food security concerns

El Nino's impact extends to food security. "In an El Nino year, there are countries where the chances of having a bad harvest increase, for example in South and Southeast Asia," explained Walter Baethgen from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

India, the world's largest rice exporter, restricted its rice exports last month due to crop damage from irregular monsoon rains. Such actions can have far-reaching implications, affecting countries dependent on these exports like Syria and Indonesia. These nations face a potential "triple challenge" during El Nino, with lower harvests, disrupted trade, and increased rice prices collectively heightening food insecurity issues.

Economic Implications

El Nino can disrupt trade routes, as evidenced by the Panama Canal's traffic restrictions due to diminished rainfall, causing an anticipated $200 million earnings reduction. Such occurrences exemplify how El Nino can impact the global economy.

A study published in Science in May estimated past El Ninos to have incurred over $4 trillion in subsequent economic costs. The joint effects of El Nino and ongoing global warming were projected to cause $84 trillion in 21st-century economic losses.

However, Oxford Economics experts have indicated El Nino as a "new risk, but not a gamechanger," suggesting that while costs remain uncertain, enhanced preparedness is vital.

(With inputs from AFP)

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