Crosscutting Themes (From ENRNs and DRR, 2016)

Crosscutting Themes

(Based on the Portal/ENRNs Project’s 15-country, city and region case studies)

Each of the 15 country studies exposed issues of concern raised by the research teams. CCB clustered several but not all of those key concerns into six general categories, each of which highlights challenges to decision makers in policymaking as well as in forecasting El Niño and for generating El Niño Readiness at national to local levels:

1) El Niño’s Characteristics

2) Forecasts

3) Governance

4) NMHSs (National Meteorological and Hydrological Services)

5) Awareness

6) Media and Social Media.

Though the categories are general in nature, they encompass basic needs of societies and foreseeable opportunities for country-appropriate responses to El Niño forecasts and potential impacts on either a strategic or a tactical basis.

The crosscutting themes includes recommendations, facts, and questions.

1.     El Niño’s Characteristics

 The characteristics of the El Niño phenomenon itself are problematic for decision makers and scientists as well as forecasters. When civil society hears about El Niño, it is usually from electronic and print media headlines about an impending El Niño episode or about the devastation of its impacts somewhere on the globe. Once a forecast of an El Niño’s onset and subsequent forecasts are in play, they receive scrutiny from the media: Are the El Niño forecasts accurate? Are the projections about intensity or location on target? Are the impacts playing out as scientists suggested?

Forecasting El Niño is still partly science and partly art. Mysteries remain in understanding the phenomenon. A close look at El Niño reveals various uncertainties about its characteristics in terms   of   air-sea   interactions   in   the

equatorial Pacific. Uncertainties are also introduced from the influences on El Niño of other surrounding air-sea oscillations. These uncertainties working together determine the societal and environmental impacts during a specific El Niño episode.

El Niño characteristics can affect decision makers’ perceptions about when or even whether to prepare for a specific El Niño (tactical) or to prepare for all events in the long term (strategic). They include but are not limited to the following:

  • El Niño’s uncertain return period of two to seven years (for example, a government can expect but one El Niño during its time in office
  • Other atmospheric and oceanic oscillations; Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) that make accurately forecasting El Niño’s onset and impacts difficult
  • Local and regional social, economic, environmental and political factors in progress during an El Niño event do influence impacts
  • El Niño can come in different strengths from weak, moderate, strong, extraordinary; researchers have difficulty forecasting intensity, except for the very strong events
  • The strong, very strong and even extraordinary El Niño events capture media attention Minor ones receive considerably less media attention and, therefore, generate less public or government concern. Some countries can be seriously affected even by weak-to-moderate events
  • Physical scientists refer to “flavors of El Niño.” It is now time to identify and categorize flavors of El Niño’s
  • Difficulty remains in attributing cause (El Niño) and effect (e.g. a teleconnected drought or flood)
  • Research challenges also remain in forecasting the strength of teleconnections for a specific emerging El Niño
  • Scientific uncertainty exists about what kicks off a basin-wide El Niño episode; there have been notable El Niño onset forecast failures as in 2014
  • Few very strong or extraordinary El Niño events have as yet been directly observed
  • Seemingly, there has been a media and scientific community over-focus on strong and extraordinary El Niño episodes and an under-focus on events of lesser intensity
  • Although an event end as determined by its physical characteristics, its impact can continue months to years Is there any  value  distinguishing between El Niño as a discrete event and as an episode (e.g. as a process)?


More Characteristics Thoughts

  • A suggested circa 15-year return period of a strong-to-extraordinary El Niño could suggest to governments that they really need to get ready only for the big events, as smaller ones may be less This is likely based on researchers and media highlighting only the recent major events: “The El Niño(s) of the Century” (a title given to both 1982-83, 1997-98 events); and, most recently, “The Godzilla of El Niños” (2015-16)
  • Preparations for a specific El Niño will depend on its expected intensity and its anticipated Which specific countries will suffer, however, depends on a country’s history with previous events and its projected intensity, timing and a realization that the forecast of El Niño is no longer a probability but a reality once it has entered into its “locked in” phase
  • El Niño-affected countries appear to become mostly concerned about the strongest events, as they are newsworthy, highlighted and often hyped by attention-seeking media
  • El Niño science is not yet perfect (and may never be), given that the global climate is In any event forecasts El Niño can be erroneous, more so for onset and impacts than for its behavior during a “locked-in” phase
  • Researchers and forecasters must be more forthcoming about the state of the scientific “knowns, unknowns and surprises” about the El Niño Southern Oscillation process and the forecasts of its extremes
  • El Niño has downstream impacts that merit serious attention (e.g. 2nd and 3rd order impact, in essence a ripple effect). In the case of El Niño, “out of sight should not be out of mind.”
  • Because the strength of known teleconnections varies from event to event, to rely only on the last or biggest previous El Niño as a guide to what impacts to expect and prepare for would be highly It is necessary to consider a few events to identify a range of possible impacts.
  • Individuals, socio-economic sectors, and NGOs live and in many cases operate with the expected flow of the seasons in mind, making  the forecast of timing of the onset of an El Niño episode extremely important


2.     Forecasts

El Niño information typically reaches the general public by way of media reports about forecasts of an El Niño’s onset. People respond to them in different ways: to act or not to act becomes the question for decision makers to answer. Forecasts, however, are based on probabilities as a quantitative expression of the likelihood of occurrence. Forecasts implicitly come with a “buyer beware” notice.


  • It is imperative for the scientific community to make explicit the distinction between forecasting El Niño’s onset, forecasting its post- onset (so-called “locked in”) phase, e.g. forecasting its behavior during its life cycle.
  • When a forecast has been released to the public, many people make decisions in response to it and to the cascade of impacts forecasts that follow in anticipation of the ripple effect of impacts that could affect routine activities and For example, reduced fishing means fewer boats needed, which means higher unemployment (fewer fishermen and less equipment needed) but higher food prices, etc.
  • Forecasters and governments should continually re-evaluate their so called best practices for disseminating El Niño forecasts to the For some governments, this will require changes in governmental regulations that control agencies that officially issue “early warnings for hydromet hazards” as well as when they are allowed to alert the public and media
  • There is no “canonical” (e.g. typical) El Niño in terms of its exact timing of onset
  • Scientists should continue to improve techniques to identify attributions of teleconnected local and regional hydromet anomalies to El Niño events of different intensities
  • Governments should invest in developing effective ways of tracking and measuring their respective country’s attributable El Niño-related socio-economic impacts
  • Governments should support societal research to identify the relationship between El Niño as a catalyst that worsens chronic underlying socio- economic The underlying chronic societal problems can negate otherwise effective responses to El Niño forecasts and impacts
  • El Niño readiness addresses hidden and neglected underlying problems or societal weaknesses that might worsen with global warming


3.     NMHSs (National Meteorological  and Hydrological  Services)

NMHSs are central players worldwide when it comes to monitoring ENSO’s warm extremes and teleconnected hydromet impacts. While various NMHSs may have the necessary technological tools and personnel to directly monitor the SSTs in the tropical Pacific, many do not. Even though an NMHS has not yet become modernized to its desired level, it should at least have the personnel, training and equipment needed to track and follow up on an El Niño from timely forecasts and reports issued by any of the reliable regional and international centers.


  • NMHSs are increasingly expected, if not tasked, to engage in scientific research and applications and to undertake services that require interacting directly with society
  • Communications between NMHSs and stakeholders at large and with government agencies should be improved, because climate, water, and weather disruptions can be a security issue
  • Governments should provide funding to their NMHSs for training their personnel to be able to be science communicators, facilitators to act as intermediaries between technical people and the public, and users in weather sensitive activities
  • The importance of NOAA’s El Niño forecasts cannot be They are a service of the US to its citizens and to the rest of the world. Many foreign governments and their hydromet services rely on NOAA forecasts in their decision-making processes, once a forecast for an El Niño onset has been issued
  • NMHSs and the media, working with local NGOs, should explore innovative ways to reach at-risk populations with warnings and other DRR efforts
  • If “an ounce of prevention is really worth a pound of cure,” who is expected to pay for that ounce that would help to modernize an NMHS, for example; and who is expected to benefit?


4.     Governance

Governance issues are central to effective disaster riskreduction (DRR) activities in the same way they are central to sustainable development planning.

“Governance” is a term first used in the fourteenth century and defined generally as “the act or manner of governing.” The 15-country case studies identified various aspects of governance that can affect, favorably or adversely, decision making related to El Niño.

DRR activities build societal resilience to hydromet hazards through the sharing of experiences, funding and political support for developing timely hydromet forecasts, early warnings, forecast dissemination, strengthening of hydromet capabilities, tactical or  strategic readiness, and so forth.

Governments determine when to plan, to act, whether to react or pro-act, how to react or pro-act, and whether to allocate funds. They can make funding available for strategic El Niño preparedness in advance or for after-the-fact response to and recovery from impacts attributed to an event’s climate, water and weather anomalies.

The bullets that follow are suggested for improving the governance of DRR- related issues.


  • Consider framing El Niño-related governance decisions in terms of strategic and tactical responses
  • Identify and evaluate government regulations that directly or indirectly impede effective responses to or preparations for the foreseeable impacts of an El Niño episode
  • Foster collaboration among in- country agencies and neighboring countries that share the same weather systems to compare their regional responses and lessons
  • A government might consider setting up at the national level an “ENSO Czar” to oversee government agencies to assure that they collaborate, not just for El Niño, but also for the La Niña and Neutral phases of the ENSO cycle
  • Some countries should consider a national level “Standing Working Group on El Niño” or, more broadly, “on ENSO”
  • Agencies’ collaboration in advance of El Niño impacts can prove very effective  for   mitigating,   if   not avoiding,  societal  disruptions  that are likely to occur
  • Implementing lessons learned from past El Niño events is dependent on the political landscape, because political change affects continuity of government interests and awareness as well as policy responses for El Niño-related issues
  • Does the possibility of El Niño impacts that might recur at some time between 2 and 7 years rank high among national crises? Governments face many crises in a given year (i.e. poverty, conflict, economic, demographic shifts, weather, climate and water hazards). Is an El Niño on a government’s list of threats at all?
  • Should governments develop a national action plan for responding to El Niño forecasts and possible impacts? As an example, many countries already have national drought Why not consider such national plans for ENSO’s phases?
  • Assess not only obvious El Niño impacts but also identify its known and hidden downstream 2nd-order consequences


5.     Awareness

Generating societal awareness about El Niño should be an on-going process that requires constant reinforcement and re- visits as new scientific information becomes available. However, awareness- raising often turns out to be little more than a one-time education or training workshop in different locations. Such efforts, while admirable, are not enough to develop let alone sustain a higher level of awareness.

Awareness of and obstacles to accessing knowledge about El Niño is a necessity, because El Niño is a potential life and livelihood threatening hydromet hazards- spawner. However, as a quasi-periodic event, it is not a constant annual concern to governments or civil society. At the least government agency and community decision makers along with the “attentive public” merit special, priority attention in the awareness-raising process.


  • The 2-7-year time between recurring El Niño events should be used to create better understanding as well as awareness of the phenomenon and to remind society about the possible impacts of and responses to previous El Niño events
  • Consider whether an explicit a distinction between “DRR” (Disaster Risk Reduction) and “drr” (disaster response and recovery) is useful for awareness-raising, education and training as well as pre-and post- disaster coordination purposes
  • Targeting audience(s) for awareness raising is imperative, but doing so will vary from country to country
  • Consider whether everyone in a given society needs to be made aware of the scientific details behind the El Niño phenomenon
  • Researchers must demonstrate clearly and repeatedly the value of El Niño and ENSO information to governments and societies on a continual
  • Practice exercises (e.g. dry runs or fire drills) should be undertaken to reinforce awareness, concern and preparedness for El Niño and the havoc it could foreseeably wreak on a society and its plans for sustainable development


6.     Media including Social Networking

People seem to have a tendency to focus on the last big climate, water or weather disaster (a drought, flood, hurricane, or severe storm). The same holds true for the media. However, looking back to the last big disaster of the same type may not provide the best insight about likely impacts for an upcoming event.

Science reporters, like the public and policy makers, must, however, look at more than just the last El Niño in order to provide its readers or listeners with a glimpse of possible impacts that could accompany El Niño.


  • Media have a special role to play in informing the public through its daily newscasts
  • Develop strategies and tactics for a sustained awareness-raising role for the media about more effectively disseminating El Niño information to reach at risk countries and people The media has an early warning role to play as well as to inform the public about El Niño as part of the overarching ENSO cycle
  • Funding agencies should help develop “media awareness and education needs” workshops to discuss how best to report on El Niño as part of the broader ENSO cycle
  • “Social media” are increasingly important conduits for educating young people about how they  can participate in early warnings for hydromet Youth are more attuned to the various uses of social media, which is an advantage over older generations
  • Explore the ways that social media can be used for El Niño awareness- raising (e.g. education and training) and for informing government agencies and media about local consequences of El Niño
  • Encourage professionals to use social media to educate, train, create awareness and discuss El Niño as a disruptor, for good or ill, of weather patterns and more generally seasonality
  • If media coverage is taken as a whole, the  average  person  could only rely on its reports for an Such reports have not been adequate for undertaking informed responses. Can social media help?
  • Media must meet the differing needs of various distinct target audiences; some articles are for awareness- raising, while others could provide guidance about actions that need to be taken in different regions and socio-economic
  • Positive guidance articles in the media is likely to be more useful to the public than focusing mostly on sensational headlines- about adverse disastrous impacts


Summary of the Executive Summary

This project merged two related activities, one planned and the other an unforeseen opportunity. The 1st activity was the lessons learned portal project which involved a desktop review of the literature on web-based platforms involving the various stages of developing a portal: soliciting, collecting, cataloging, archiving and the open- access sharing of recommendations and lessons related to hydro-meteorological hazards and disasters.

In theory, a portal would enable lessons from countries around the globe to be made available in an open-access, web- based platform to all countries in an effort to promote lessons learning from societal and governmental examples or preparations for and responses to  past and ongoing hazards. This portal project was based on the premise that “lessons learned” have really for the most part been “lessons identified,” since many of those lessons go untested or unused. Successive similar disasters seem to produce similar lessons, raising serious questions about the process of so called “lessons learning.”

A “lessons learned portal” for sharing experiences and concerns is a great idea. In practice, however, it is not such a straightforward and assured benefits- producing endeavor. Starting such a portal requires a commitment to support it well into the future. Many portals are started for different types of  activities and for good reasons, but have short lifespans due to waning interest, lack of a sustained funding stream or lack of use.

The 2nd activity was focused on El Niño Ready Nations (ENRNs). The idea behind the notion of El Niño Readiness for nations, cities, NMHSs and islands is to identify ways that lessons identified for coping with ENSO’s warm or cold extremes are collected, archived, evaluated, field tested, and applied in ENSO-related DRR efforts at national to local levels. When it comes to El Niño or La Niña, impacts for the most part are of national concern. Thus, there is likely a nation-bias about responding to the consequences of ENSO’s extremes.

Human nature is a factor that must also be considered. People tend to first recollect the most recent hydromet hazard as being the most important for lessons learning. National bias and discounting the past (that is, putting less value     on     the     use     of    historical information) often lead to the view that a portal should be developed at the national level primarily for the in- country sharing of lessons and, secondarily, for the sharing with other countries that might have to cope with similar hydromet hazards.

The 15 country case studies in this Portal/ENRNs project encompass different political systems, cultures, socio-economic and political settings from around the world. Each country study has its own set of lessons identified and learned, influenced by its  own unique set of national and  regional factors influencing its hydromet  DRR- and drr-related policies in general. As these country cases have shown, however, when compared side by side, common interests and concerns emerge. Some of the common aspects were noted in the previous crosscutting themes section as to the range of national best practices related to DRR from which numerous countries could learn what other countries considered to be best practices to improve their own readiness by preparing for and coping with hydromet hazards and disasters.

Fostering awareness activities with regard to learning lessons in general and about lessons learning for specific disasters is the responsibility of a country’s political leaders. It can also be seen as a responsibility of donor organizations that fund El Niño-related DRR projects. Governments should take up the responsibility to develop and maintain a web-based platform (perhaps with the help of the donor community), a platform  that  involves  the  soliciting, collecting, cataloging, archiving and sharing of lessons and recommendations related to hydro-meteorological hazards and disasters. Each government should openly share its lessons and should have access to other governments’ national lessons portals.

The value and importance of national meteorological and hydrological services have grown sharply in the last couple of decades, as climates’ influence on human activities have expanded beyond what were once considered their normal boundaries. National approaches to lessons learning can be yet another activity of an NMHS. With commensurate funding to undertake this mission and working with universities, an NMHS can gather and truly apply lessons related to El Niño and La Niña as well.

As a final comment, the list of crosscutting themes in the previous section may viewed too general and even obvious for specific action-taking. However, these are areas that must be addressed, if progress is to be made on generating interest in making one’s nation El Niño-ready.

See full ENRNs and DRR report here

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