What is El Niño, and why are we worried about it?

December 4, 2023
By Catherine Rolfe
December 4, 2023
~8 min read

Meteorologists are predicting a strong El Niño weather pattern through the winter and into the spring. But what is El Niño, and what does it mean for girls around the world?

A young African woman wears a long pink head scarf that goes down to her waist and leaves her full face visible. She stands in front of a patchwork tent made of smaller tarps sewn together and next to two rectangular yellow water cans.
Khadra, 13, had to leave her home in Somalia due to drought — something that is expected to become more common due to the effects of El Niño at the end of 2023 and into 2024.

What is El Niño?

El Niño is a climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean that can affect weather worldwide. It represents a change in the winds that circle the Earth, called “trade winds.” Normally, these winds blow west along the equator, taking warm water west from South America toward Asia.

But during El Niño, trade winds weaken. Warm water is pushed back east, toward the west coast of the Americas. With this shift, areas in the northern U.S. and Canada are dryer and warmer than usual, while the U.S. Gulf Coast and Southeast, and northern Mexico, are wetter than usual and have increased flooding. Historically, El Niño-influenced weather systems bring more intense cyclones in the North-Western Pacific and more frequent cyclones in the South Pacific.

Episodes of El Niño typically last nine to 12 months but can sometimes last for years. Events occur every two to seven years, on average, but they don’t occur on a regular schedule. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why they happen, but they can predict El Niño conditions several months to a year in advance, based on historical models and observation data.

Basically, El Niño is a climate pattern that changes the Earth’s normal conditions, resulting in extreme, unpredictable weather.

You can help communities prepare for El Niño and recover from extreme weather events with a gift to Plan’s Humanitarian Response Fund.

When was the last strong El Niño, and what happened?

The last strong El Niño season ran from mid-2015 through early 2016 and affected approximately 60 million people globally, according to the U.N.

  • Across Africa, El Niño led to drought and an increase in food insecurity and malnutrition. Ethiopia experienced its worst drought in 50 years, causing an estimated 1.2 million children under age 5 and pregnant and lactating mothers to suffer from moderate acute malnutrition in 2016.
  • People in Asia and the Pacific also experienced extended dry spells or drought, along with powerful cyclones, which led to water and food shortages. While Indonesia was combating wildfires and responding to flooding, places like Fiji were hit by multiple cyclones. When the El Niño-fueled Cyclone Winston made landfall in February 2016, it destroyed 100% of Fiji’s crops in the country’s hardest hit areas.
  • Droughts in Latin America and the Caribbean were especially bad in Central America’s dry corridor, running through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The population in this area was primarily subsistence farmers, laborers, landless farmers and female-headed households. Overall, more than 3.5 million people in Central America faced food security as a result of the crisis, in addition to 1.5 million people in Haiti.
Hundreds of yellow jerry cans stand out against the expanse of dry brown earth around the water tank.
In 2016, Plan responded to the drought in Ethiopia by installing and maintaining water sources. Here, you can see long rows of yellow jerry cans lined up at a Plan water tank serving 150 households.

Did you know? El Niño has an opposite counterpart called La Niña. While El Niño represents a warm phase, La Niña represents a cool phase. La Niña often follows El Niño a year later.

How does El Niño impact girls around the world?

Children, especially girls, are often uniquely vulnerable during crises like El Niño, which all too often increase risks such as child marriage, trafficking and gender-based violence.

Extreme weather — whether heavy flooding or too little rain — can also disrupt education, with girls often forced to drop out due to reduced family incomes, safety concerns or greater household responsibilities. This not only has long-term consequences on their development and life opportunities, but can place girls at risk of violence, early marriage, teenage pregnancy and hunger.

In times of crisis, girls, particularly in low-income regions, are also at greater risk of health issues and malnutrition. They are more likely to be forced to leave their homes, which can lead to exploitation and separation from their families. A gender-sensitive approach is vital to address these unique challenges.

We’re already seeing droughts hurt girls in places like Haiti and Somalia, because girls are often responsible for collecting their families’ water.

“It is very difficult to get water in this area,” Sofiana, a 13-year-old girl in Haiti, told Plan. “The stream is very far away, and it can take an hour to walk there.”

The long walks can be dangerous, especially if girls have to walk at night. If they walk during the day, they risk missing school.

In Somalia, droughts have already caused families to migrate and, in some cases, resort to child marriage.

“We came here during the last drought,” Qadan says from a displacement camp in Somaliland. “We don’t have jobs or any cattle. All 150 of our cows died due to the drought.”

With no income or food to feed their children, Qadan and her husband decided to marry off their 15- and 16-year-old daughters.

“We are not happy with what we did,” Qadan says. “We wanted the girls to go to school, but we couldn’t afford it and thought marriage would be beneficial for them.”

Now, 13-year-old Khadra fears that she may be next.

“I miss my married sisters,” she says. “They were supposed to be here and support me. I want them to come back. The reason why they married men is because of the drought that happened to us.”


How might El Niño impact people who are already in crisis?

Plan is already responding to a hunger crisis in Africa and Haiti caused by a deadly combination of supply chain shortages, conflict and climate change. We’ve seen that, when food is scarce in many places around the world, girls often eat less — and last.

Read: Black tea for dinner

A young Black woman looks at the camera with her arms crossed. She wears a red dress and stands in front of palm trees and a small shed that is blurred in the background.
Sofiana, 13, collects water for her family from a river located an hour’s walk from her home.

Is El Niño part of global warming and/or climate change?

No — El Niño has been occurring for thousands of years, and will continue into the future.

However, there is increasing evidence that human-driven climate change is amplifying the frequency and strength of El Niño events. In fact, El Niño is anticipated to exacerbate global warming, potentially leading to the global temperature temporarily surpassing the 1.5°C warming threshold at multiple points between 2023 and 2024. This is why it’s especially important that communities have the resources they need to prepare and respond to these events.

You can help girls and their communities prepare for El Niño and recover from extreme weather events with a gift to Plan’s Humanitarian Response Fund.

Read: Meet the girls engineering a more sustainable future


What do we know about this year’s El Niño?

Scientists first declared the presence of this season’s El Niño conditions in June of 2023. Since then, here’s what the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has said we can expect:

  • Eastern Africa is likely to see above-average rainfall, which could help the region recover from years of drought. However, it could also contribute to flooding and landslides, especially in eastern Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and southern Uganda.
  • Most of Southern Africa is expected to receive below-average rainfall, affecting agriculture-based economies. Many countries in this region lost crops last year due to cyclones. The anticipated drought conditions are likely to exacerbate food insecurity, particularly affecting children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and older people.
  • Asia and the Pacific region often experience contrasting impacts during El Niño events. While some areas can expect drier conditions and more typhoon activity, others are preparing for above-average rainfall and cyclone activity. In the 2015-2016 season, both Vanuatu and the Philippines experienced cyclones followed by droughts.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean are still recovering from the 2020 hurricane season, the strongest on record for the region. This year’s El Niño will likely bring dry conditions with below-average rainfall. Some areas of Central America have already lost crops due to drier weather and have delayed planting new seeds. Meanwhile, the government of Colombia estimates that about 9.4 million acres of crops are under high threat of El Niño-induced drought, and many animals risk being affected and displaced.

Read: Photo story: Planting seeds of hope for girls’ futures


How does Plan prepare for emergencies?

We work with girls and their communities to plan for possible disasters and minimize the damage. If something does happen, we’re ready with immediate support designed to meet girls’ unique needs.

For example, Plan is working with young leaders in flood-prone communities in the Philippines. Aires, 19, is part of a group of young people organized by Plan who are working to keep themselves and their families safe should disaster strike.

“My own family has felt the effects of the changing climate,” she says. “Floods are getting worse and becoming more unpredictable and our fishing practices are being impacted.”

Through Plan’s training, Aires helped to identify community hazards through risk mapping exercises and come up with solutions to tackle them. She created a disaster preparedness plan for her family to follow in case of an emergency and helped develop inclusive and risk-informed flood plans for the wider community.

With Plan’s vast network of local leaders, this essential work is saving lives — and, it’s only possible with support from people like you.

Seven young people sit around a table, some leaning over it to point at maps laid out in front of them. They are outside, and the building behind them has a wall that reads “Community center.”
Plan is working with young leaders in flood-prone communities in the Philippines to help them plan what to do in case of an emergency.

What is Plan doing to prepare for the impact of the next El Niño?

Around the world, we’re stepping up early action to prepare for this year’s El Niño. Working hand in hand with local communities, we are supporting children and their families to prepare for and withstand disasters, saving lives while protecting livelihoods and children’s futures.

Plan International is actively coordinating with U.N. agencies and expanding preparedness efforts globally, focusing on the countries where El Niño is expected to have the most significant impact. Our response includes addressing the critical issue of food security by working to meet the rising food aid needs and providing support in regions directly affected by El Niño:

  • In Asia, we are working to address funding challenges, conduct small-scale responses in Indonesia and have an Emergency Response Team ready for deployment in the Philippines, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea.
  • In East and Southern Africa, we are preparing for drought and flooding, securing funds for early action, sharing early warning information and providing training and resources for disaster risk management.
  • In the Central Sahel region of Africa, we are preparing a response to increased food prices caused by El Niño.
  • In Central and South America, our offices have developed anticipatory response plans, including protection measures, food security initiatives and health services. We are planning to provide health support, cash, basic supplies, infrastructure improvements and capacity strengthening for at-risk communities.


How can I help Plan respond after a disaster happens?

Plan works with communities to respond to their individual needs. Because we know that girls’ unique needs are often overlooked in times of crisis, we make sure to distribute items like menstrual pads as part of our responses, along with other essentials like shelter, food and clean water. When an earthquake hit western Nepal on Nov. 3, local Plan staff acted quickly to provide 500 families with lifesaving items like blankets and tarps. We also build safe spaces where children can learn and play while their parents run errands, and connect families with mental health services.

This is a unique situation — we don’t always know when a disaster will strike. Your gift today can help communities around the world prepare for the impact of El Niño.