Why this year’s El Niño could be extremely dangerous and how countries can prepare

December 18, 2023

This article was written by Needa Malik, a Plan USA disaster risk manager. For more information on Plan’s work, please reach out to [email protected].

Your feeds are probably flooded (pun-intended) with talk about El Niño this year. El Niño represents extremes in the El Niño/Southern Oscillation Cycle, which is a natural weather phenomenon that causes changes in sea surface temperatures, rainfall, air pressure and atmospheric circulation in the Pacific Ocean.

The 2023-2024 El Niño season is predicted to be one of the top six strongest El Niño events in recorded history. The projection has an 80-90% certainty and, although the impacts of climactic events such as El Niño are always difficult to predict, climate change and the warmest sea level temperatures we have ever experienced are likely to exacerbate its effects.

The effects of El Niño will vary depending on concurrent climactic events and geographic location, while impacts will vary dramatically depending on severity of events, existing conditions, mitigation efforts and prepositioning of response. Across the world, El Niño is expected to affect more than 100 million people. For some, El Niño has already brought a drier than normal climate, while for others, it has meant heavier than average precipitation, with the worst of it likely to come in the next few months.

Six people. four wearing blue Plan International vests, walk near a road that has been destroyed and broken into pieces by a recent flood.
In Kenya, flooding triggered by El Niño rains has caused widespread devastation. Thousands have been displaced and many homes have been destroyed. In Marsabit and Tana River County, Plan International has carried out a rapid needs assessment to determine the impact on communities’ lives and livelihoods.

This alteration of weather patterns has and will continue to result in more erratic weather, including coastal storms like tsunamis and hurricanes, wildfires or winter storms in other areas. Humanitarian and development impacts have the potential to be far-reaching, including exacerbating existing drought conditions or severe flooding, such as the heavy rains and resulting floods we’ve already seen this year in Kenya. These impacts will lead to higher levels of food and water insecurity, volatility of livelihoods, displacement and increased vulnerabilities for higher-risk populations such as adolescents and girls, and persons with disabilities.

Read: Plan International Women Deliver 2023 advocacy brief: Girls’ rights in crises

In particular, extreme weather events directly affect girls’ ability to attend school. For example, when schools are damaged or inaccessible, and unpredictable weather patterns impacts pastoral and agriculturally based livelihoods, girls are more likely to be pulled out of school when families face reduced household incomes. As a result, children and young people are exposed to new threats, such as loss of or separation from their families, sexual exploitation, trafficking and recruitment into armed groups. Furthermore, existing harmful practices such as child labor and child marriage can be exacerbated. Girls uniquely face increased risk of child, early and forced marriage and unions, unintended pregnancy, school dropout, child labor, sexual exploitation and abuse, and they often eat less and last in countries facing climate risks, conflict, famine and hunger.

While no two El Niño events look the same, we can still look to past experiences to mitigate, prepare and respond. During the last strong El Niño phenomenon in 2016, Plan International worked with local communities to identify a variety of interventions which included provision of drought-resistant seeds to farmers, water trucking to provide water for families and keep kids in school — as girls are often responsible for fetching water for their families — and health education in countries such as Ethiopia, so families can identify signs of malnutrition.

How Plan is preparing for El Niño

Around the world, Plan International is stepping up early action to prepare for 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.

  • In Asia, we are conducting 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, Plan is preparing for drought and flooding, securing funds for early action, sharing early warning information and providing training and resources for disaster risk management. A regional communication and advocacy strategy is being developed to support a coordinated response.
  • In the Central Sahel region, we are designing plans to respond to increased food prices caused by El Niño.
  • In Central and South America, Plan offices have developed anticipatory and 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.

Case study: Plan International Somalia

El Niño’s alignment with the monsoon season in Somalia is expected to impact 50% of the country, causing riverine and flash floods, leading to displacement and loss of lives and livelihoods. Earlier in the year, El Niño caused drier than normal conditions exacerbating severe drought, with some counties facing crisis-level acute food insecurity. Plan has prepared a multi-sectoral plan to mitigate and respond to the effects of El Niño.

Plan’s response

  • Disseminate early warning data through increased government and community engagement. Information will be accessible, relevant, timely, and concise.
  • Increase access to and supply of water, coupled with awareness of proper sanitation and hygiene practices. Activities include provision of water storage materials, emergency water trucking to affected communities, rehabilitation of latrines in schools, construction of rainwater catchments, and awareness campaigns to reduce the spread of diseases, prevent infections and improve menstrual hygiene management.
  • Strengthen protective environment, particularly for girls. This includes procurement and pre-positioning of emergency supplies for child protection, strengthening child protection systems at the community level, and disseminating awareness-raising messages on key risks, early warning information and multisectoral support services that are age and gender appropriate.
  • Improve quality and availability of education in emergencies through establishing temporary learning centers, provision of teaching and learning materials, tailored teacher trainings, and support children’s access to education through conditional cash transfer or in-kind support.
  • Reduce acute food insecurity, malnutrition, and other vulnerabilities through provision of multi-purpose cash assistance. Multi-purpose cash allows individuals the flexibility to make decisions that best serve their needs, especially in times of crisis.

Case study: Plan International Kenya

Over 100 people have died due to El Niño induced flooding and 90,000 have been forced to leave their homes with the Government of Kenya estimating a total of 1.5 – 2 million could be affected. Plan is working closely with local, international and government actors to effectively prepare for and respond.

Plan’s response

  • Strengthen early warning systems and community engagement by continuous monitoring of information, strengthening communication network and structures, capacity building for stakeholders, and supporting government agencies with evacuation processes as needed.
  • Support food security and sustainability of livelihoods through crop production and safe storage campaigns, community-based construction and maintenance of flood control structures, water harvesting, and standardized messaging on prevention and control measures for livestock and humans.
  • Protect children in emergencies by procuring and pre-positioning key supplies, strengthening systems at the community level, identifying evacuation centers, disseminating awareness raising messages, providing psychosocial support and coordinating with various levels of government.
  • Provide non-food items and shelter through pre-positioning and procurement of key items; supporting government in information management, coordination, and assessments.
  • Enhance water, sanitation, and hygiene practices through facilitating communication with key stakeholders through various channels, pre-positioning supplies, strengthening sector coordination and information management, and providing sanitary facilities for displaced populations.
  • Support continuity of education by training education focal points on disaster preparedness and response, rehabilitating destroyed facilities, providing materials, capacity building for national and county level officers, and supporting advocacy efforts for education during emergencies.
  • Strengthen early recovery and long-term-resilience building by distributing drought-resistant seeds and inputs, promoting diversification of livelihoods, supporting advocacy for inclusive policies, and training farmers on sustainable agriculture.


Strategies to reduce the impact on girls and adolescents

As a vulnerable population, children, especially girls, are at a higher risk of impact from crisis. We are already seeing some of the gendered effects of this El Niño. Due to intense rains across East Africa, more than 1 million people have been displaced, thousands of homes washed out and farmlands inundated. In Kenya, El Niño-induced flooding is placing girls and young women at heightened risk of gender-based violence, as they find themselves in temporary shelters and public spaces.

Recognizing that El Niño is exacerbating multiple global crises, such as the current global hunger and climate crisis, and their disproportionate and devastating impact on girls, integrated, multi-sectoral programming between humanitarian and development sectors and across education, nutrition, health and protection responses is vital to securing girls’ rights during times of crises.

  • Governments, donors and crisis-affected countries must prioritize the needs of girls and ensure gender equality is at the heart of sector plans, emergency response plans, budgets and policies. Girls and adolescents must be included in shaping these plans and policies. In both the Somalia and Kenya El Niño response plans, girls’ needs are centered and prioritized.
  • Inclusive, quality, gender-transformative education in emergencies not only ensures girls continue to access their right to education, but it can strengthen resilience and reduce the risk of violence, as well as child, early and forced marriage and unions. This is why Plan is working with education officers, government officials, and other stakeholders in both countries to ensure quality education continues despite numerous challenges brought on by the crisis.
  • Sustainable investments must be made toward social safety nets, such as cash transfers and school meals, which have been proven to increase access, retention and learning outcomes of the most vulnerable girls within crises. Multi-purpose cash is a critical component in crises to allow families to prioritize their needs and will be provided as a part of the response efforts in Kenya, Somalia, and other Plan offices around the world.
  • Prevention of and response to sexual and gender-based violence must be prioritized in the initial humanitarian response phase and address the specific risks faced by adolescent girls. Plan is strengthening community-level mechanisms, building awareness, and specially tailoring activities in both Somalia and Kenya to reduce the risk faced by girls.

Call to action

As the El Niño season has already started, we call upon all stakeholders to engage with local and national governments, advocating for early government response and preparation to enhance the resilience of communities in the face of this and future crises.

We call for governments to support and involve girls in climate action and recognize that girls’ inclusion in political decision-making is crucial for developing effective climate solutions.