Over the past several months, the climate pattern El Niño has disrupted different regions and sectors across the world. Zimbabwe recently declared a state of disaster, due largely to El Nino-induced drought. The city government in Bogota, Colombia announced water rationing as reservoir levels dropped to critical lows, restricting water use for approximately 10 million people.

El Niño occurs every two to seven years, usually lasting between nine and 12 months. It decreases Pacific trade winds, which increase water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and lead to a range of climate and weather effects across the Americas, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia.

And while most attention surrounding El Niño focuses on drier conditions and water shortages, cascading effects impact food and energy production, air quality, human health and more. These impacts are only expected to worsen as climate change intensifies both the frequency and severity of El Niño occurrences and makes precipitation more erratic. 

Below, we examine the ripple effects of El Niño-fueled drought across three countries where WRI works — Colombia, Indonesia and South Africa.

El Niño Threatens Energy Production in Colombia

Colombia’s energy sector is especially vulnerable to drought. The country relies on hydropower for approximately 75% of its power generation.

In July of 2023, the World Meteorological Organization declared the start of the El Niño season. Energy prices rose in August 2023 in anticipation of the predicted El Niño, and the country imported more Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to supply its thermoelectric power plants in case of reduced hydroelectric supply. By October 2023, experts warned of an extended dry season and the risk of further inflation based on previous El Niño events in the region. As of April 2024, Colombia's reservoirs were at less than 30% capacity, well below historical averages.

Nevertheless, the country was able to meet energy demands — but historically, this has not always been the case.

During the 2015-2016 El Niño, Colombia saw a 40% decrease in rainfall, straining the electrical grid and spiking electricity costs, while increasing the risk of blackouts. In 1992, unprecedented drought and El Niño patterns caused a severe energy crisis, with the government implementing power rationing for up to 9 hours a day in Bogotá and 18 hours a day in San Andrés and Providencia for nearly an entire year. President Cesar Gaviria moved the clocks forward one hour to secure an extra hour of daylight each day, changing Colombia’s time zone from UTC-5 to UTC-4 at midnight on May 2, 1992. The measure, informally known as the “Gaviria Hour,” lasted nine months.

Air pollution in South Kalimantan, Indonesia
Wildfire smoke in South Kalimantan, Indonesia in August 2023. Wildfires spiked in 2023, due in large part to El Nino-induced drought. Photo by Mas Paijan/Shutterstock

El Niño Linked to Crop Failures, Wildfires and Poor Air Quality in Indonesia

Experts predicted that the current El Niño would increase the risks of wildfire and crop damage in Indonesia, warning of drought conditions across several regions. Those predictions were largely proven correct. Crop prices spiked due to drought. Wildfire levels in 2023 increased by a factor of five compared to the previous year. Coffee production in Indonesia declined by 20% and rice prices climbed 25% over government-recommended levels, as farmers either avoided their third rice crop planting in October/November 2023 or planted crops failed due to lack of water.

Warmer, drier conditions from El Niño also caused air pollution to spike in cities like Jakarta, far exceeding the World Health Organization’s recommended limits for particulate matter (PM 2.5). Wildfires spurred by El Niño also reduced air quality, with smoke and haze felt both within and outside national borders.

Like other countries, Indonesia also experienced an intense El Niño in 2015-2016, which led to severe wildfires. These same conditions caused crop failures and price spikes, forcing the Indonesian government to rely on food imports and cloud seeding efforts.

The Indonesian government has since taken aggressive action, including increasing the country’s firefighting capacity and  importing 2 million metric tonnes of rice to boost food supplies. It’s also working to reform agricultural practices by reducing the use of fire in crop and bush clearing in peatlands and restoring fire-damaged areas. But ultimately, more systemic interventions will be needed.

El Niño Hits South Africa’s Economy

South Africa is overwhelmingly dependent on rainfall and surface water for its water needs, making it particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature.

In the months prior to the 2023/2024 El Niño, experts predicted severe drought. And while the current El Niño seems to have passed without drastic impacts on water supplies in the region, the last one in 2018 showed how disruptive the weather pattern can be.

Six years ago, Cape Town faced down a “Day Zero,” where the city came dangerously close to running out of drinking water. This was precipitated by a regional three-year rainfall deficit, linked to El Niño’s effect on ocean weather patterns. Residents were restricted to 50 liters of water per day at the height of the of the crisis. Tariffs were raised on water use, with the heaviest users facing fines and penalties.

But impacts went far beyond water, with economic disruptions extending outside of Cape Town. The years of drought leading up to the potential Day Zero were estimated to have cost the wider Western Cape regional economy R15 billion (approximately $780 million), roughly 3.4% of the provincial GDP and 0.3% percent of the national GDP. The agricultural sector alone suffered an estimated $400 million in damages and tens of thousands of lost jobs. Cape Town’s tourism sector was also impacted, as 2018 saw a record 12.6% decline in April tourist arrivals, with smaller declines throughout the year.

The City of Cape town and the wider province narrowly avoided Day Zero by cutting water usage by 50% over three years, using a combination of severe water restrictions, public communications campaigns promoting efficient water use, technical solutions involving groundwater and desalination, as well as a timely and fortunate increase in rainfall in 2018. But in the long-term, the country will need more systemic measures to address the ongoing risk of drought.

Building Resilience to El Niño and Climate Change

The recurrence of El Niño is historically documented, and its impacts are expected to be heightened because of climate change. Meanwhile, climate change itself is expected to make precipitation patterns increasingly erratic, with many countries grappling with increased risk of floods, droughts or both.

While countries like Colombia, Indonesia and South Africa have managed to overcome El Nino’s threats in recent years through crisis-response measures, longer-term planning and systemic interventions are essential for increasing resilience over the long-term. National leaders and decision-makers will need to increase adaptation and mitigation to fight both El Nino and climate change alike.

This means acting both in the water sector and outside it.

For example, South Africa can expand its water conservation efforts, as well as explore additional sources of water through desalination or water reuse. Already, the country is removing “water hungry” invasive tree species, such as pine and eucalyptus, from the areas surrounding Cape Town. As of October 2023, 46,000 hectares of invasive trees had been removed, saving an estimated 15.2 billion liters of water.

Colombia can reduce its reliance on hydroelectric power and reduce emissions by incorporating more renewable energy into its mix. Research shows there is significant potential for the country to expand its wind and solar power generation capacity, up to 30 and 32 GW, respectively.

And in Indonesia, the government can expand its efforts beyond reforming agricultural and firefighting practices. By fully protecting the country’s wetlands and peatlands, it can further reduce the risk of wildfires, while preserving native food sources such as fish can reduce demands on agricultural land.

Additionally, nature-based solutions can help build more resilient water systems that can withstand the extreme weather associated with El Niño and climate change. Wetland restoration, for example, has the potential to restore depleted groundwater. Healthy forests can filter contaminants from water sources. Restored ecosystems can reduce the risk of wildfires.

The synergistic effects of climate change and El Niño have global implications. All countries will need to work domestically and collaboratively to properly adapt to these changing, increasingly severe weather patterns.