Understanding El Niño phenomenon and its impacts (First of Two Parts)

by Admin-Phmp

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

(First of Two Parts)

“As the complex world we live in is deeply uncertain, we are better off building resilience to become adaptive and emergent rather than relying on crystal balls. Relying on probabilities, certainties, or near certainties will fail us.” – Roger Spitz, The Definitive Guide to Thriving on Disruption


The bad boy of erratic weather conditions is back!

The state-run Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has already issued a bulletin stating that, based on recent conditions and model forecasts, there is 80% that El Niño “could happen in a few months.”

El Niño may emerge in the coming season (June, July, and August) and “may persist until the first quarter of 2024,” according to Dr. Vicente B. Malano, PAGASA administrator.

“When conditions are favorable for the development of El Niño within the next two months at a probability of 70% or more, an El Niño alert is issued,” Malano said.

In a climate forum held in Quezon City recently, senior weather specialist Rusy Abastillas told the media that at least three provinces in Mindanao “may start experiencing below-normal rainfall in July.”

Albert Einstein once said, “When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large, the scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.”

Such is the case of the El Niño phenomenon.

Water shortage

Although we still have to enter the first phase of the erratic weather, we are already experiencing its initial melee. That is in the case of water shortage. People are posting their rants on social media. They complain of the lack of water for their daily needs.

Next to air, water is the element most necessary for survival. A person needs at least 24 liters of water daily or one liter per hour. Science tells us that even when he breathes, he still needs water.

“Our lungs must be moist to take in oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide,” Leroy Perry explained in his article which appeared in Reader’s Digest. “It is possible to lose half a liter of liquid each day just by exhaling.”

A household of five needs at least 120 liters of water per day to meet basic needs – for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry, house cleaning, according to Worldwatch Institute, a global environmental group.

El Niño is likely to trigger a water crisis. In the 2019 El Niño, there was a massive decline in rainfall which affected Metro Manila and its neighboring provinces to experience water shortage.


Brown-outs become the rule rather than an exception. In normal conditions, power outages are common. But during the El Niño, it will be constant and there’s no assurance when electricity can return.

The energy crisis will be more pronounced in Mindanao. The country’s second largest island gets its power from four major sources: hydropower, coal, geothermal and oil. But the bulk – more than 50% of the power – comes from hydropower.

“We are heavily dependent on hydropower which is coming only from one source, Lake Lanao,” said an official of the Aboitiz Power Corporation. “This is the reason why during summer months or during long dry spells, when water level in Lake Lanao is very low, the power supply in Mindanao is gravely affected.”

Long drought

Our body needs water and so does the food we eat. “We drink, in one form or another, perhaps 4 liters of water per day,” said Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Instituted, both based in Washington, D.C. “But the food we consume each day requires 2,000 liters of water to produce, or 500 times as much.”

A closer look at the available statistics proves him right. Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water around the world. In Asia, for instance, agriculture accounts for 86% of the total annual water withdrawal.

Rice, the staple food of Filipinos, is a case in point. In his book, The International Crisis, author Robin Clark reports that an average farmer needs 5,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice.

“Rice growing is a heavy consumer of water,” states the report, “Water: A Looming Crisis,” published by Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Media use “dry spell” and “long drought” to describe the event. According to PAGASA, the drought that will transpire during the El Niño phenomenon is likely to result in 60% reduction in rainfall.

With less rainfall, rice production will definitely be affected. The demand is more likely to increase while the supply is expectedly to decrease. It must be recalled that during the El Niño phenomenon in 2016, several farmers who were demanding rice from the government were shot and killed in a rally in Kidapawan City.

Fish shortage

Fish, like rice, is another staple food of Filipinos. Production is most likely to be affected as well. After all, they are inhabiting the marine waters, from which the phenomenon actually commences. The ocean is not a uniform and constant environment.

“The high temperature and rapid evaporation of surface water during El Niño create unfavorable conditions for marine fishes,” said Dr. Aida Jose, PAGASA’s chief of the Climatology Branch.

Production losses are caused by drying of fish ponds, shorter production cycles, stunted fish growth, and fish mortalities from stress, poor water quality and disease, Dr. Jose pointed out.

“A major consequence of an El Niño is the loss of commercially important species where they traditionally occur,” said the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA cited the case of the movement of the market squid to cooler waters away from established fisheries in California. Although there are no reports of such things happening in Philippine waters, it must have happened since no studies were being conducted of such an event.

Fosters diseases

El Niño fosters diseases. Such were the findings of an analysis that was published in Scientific Reports. The study analyzed data from the abnormally strong 2015-2016 El Niño and scientists found increases in incidences of diseases like chikungunya, hantavirus, cholera, plague, Zika and more.

The Department of Health (DOH), on its website, lists disorders associated with high temperatures caused by El Niño. These are: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, exertional heat injury and heat stroke.

Diarrhea and skin diseases are among the health problems related to water scarcity, according to the health department. “Without adequate water, people cannot wash themselves properly,” DOH said.

The health department also cited red tide blooms which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. The high temperature of the water is one of the conditions that trigger red tides.

“Humans die when they consume shellfish, particularly mussels, that are contaminated with red tide organisms,” Dr. Rafael Guerrero III, an academician with the National Academy of Science and Technology. “Being filter-feeders, the mussels take in the red tide organisms from the water which are accumulated in their internal organs.”

Dr. Guerrero said people still get poisoned even if the mussels are cooked because the toxin is not destroyed by heat. The poison in the red tide organisms is known as saxitoxin, a water-soluble salt that affects the nervous system. (To be concluded)

You may also like