El Niño and Mozambique

By Gary Littlejohn

Last year witnessed one of the strongest El Niño events since the 18th century.  It peaked in December 2015 and has now dissipated, although the resultant drought in parts of Africa continues with serious impacts on food security.  The end of the El Niño event was unusual, in that it was linked to an apparent split in the warm water then hitting the Pacific coast of Central America.  While the southern part then moved away from the coast of South America, the northern part moved up the coast to Alaska, where it produced record warm temperatures that were wrongly attributed to ‘climate change’ (anthropogenic global warming).

Now that it has subsided quite quickly, there are already some early indications of the opposite phenomenon (an incipient La Niña) but one should be cautious about predicting such an outcome at this very early stage. It is important to stress that the effects of the El Niño live on, especially in Africa in the form of serious food shortages.  The hardest hit areas seem to be southern Africa and Ethiopia, but East Africa will doubtless be suffering too. Other effects include ‘coral bleaching’, which is a dying off of coral reefs when the temperature in the sea exceeds 26 Celsius, and this has happened on a large scale this year to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

It is not known what triggers such events, and indeed their periodicity varies over time, but a recent academic study published only weeks ago (covering many geographic regions and recording times thousands of years apart, using dendrochronology and ice core samples) has shown that they are not connected to average global temperatures. It is for this reason that it is wrong to link an El Niño to ‘climate change’ although such a link seemed to be very strong for the years 1976-1998.

The name ‘El Niño’ (the Boy Child) was given to it by Peruvian fishermen who noticed that, roughly every six years at around Christmas, warm water hit the Pacific coast of Peru and disrupted the rich fishing grounds that depended on the nutrients carried to the surface by the cold Humboldt current  flowing from southern Chile to northern Peru. After the major El Niño event of 1881-82, which caused a huge famine in India and China, as well as in Africa, a British colonial administrator in India noticed that such events seemed to coincide with a reversal of the normal pressure difference recorded by meteorological stations in Tahiti and in Darwin, Australia, and went to find out why. This switching back and forth in the air pressure became known as the ‘Southern Oscillation’ and so sometimes these events are referred to as ENSO events (El Niño Southern Oscillation) because it was eventually realised that they occur together. 

An overview of the phenomenon was not achieved until the International Geophysical Year (1957) when satellite and other simultaneous global measurements enabled scientists to see the overall pattern of events. Further study showed that one of its many effects is to form an isotope of oxygen, Oxygen 18, in sea coral in the tropics.  So from fossil coral it is now known that ENSO events have been happening for at least the last 250,000 years. That is much longer than anatomically modern humans have been around, and I would argue that the history of East Africa from the Eastern Cape of South Africa to Egypt should be reconsidered in the light of ENSO events.  Economic and political changes often seem to be driven by ENSO events.

How an El Niño functions

Basically what happens is that a very warm column of extremely high pressure air develops on the Equator at Indonesia. The air pressure is so high that it actually pushes down the sea level, thereby generating underwater waves known as Kelvin waves. In principle, these Kelvin waves could radiate out in all directions, since high pressure areas (anticyclones), just like cyclones, are circular in shape and spiral in their dynamics. However, the topography of the relatively shallow ocean floor around Indonesia, coupled with the many islands, means that in practice the Kelvin waves travel to the East across the Pacific, drawing a surface wave behind them, so that the sea level rises on average by roughly half a metre at the front of the surface wave.

The Kelvin waves dragging the warm sea surface behind them produce a temperature change at an angle underwater.  In other words, some of the warm water is dragged down by the Kelvin waves and this produces an underwater temperature increase, with the boundary between the colder and warmer water behind being at an angle.  This ‘thermal incline’ or ‘thermocline’ means that the sea heats up at depths not usually much affected by sunlight, as deep as 1,500 feet.  It takes some months for this wave of warm water to hit the Pacific coast of the Americas, but it usually brings rain with it. Thus one tends to get damaging floods in the Americas. At times these rains can cross Central America, travel through the Caribbean and reinforce the Gulf Stream to cross the Atlantic and hit northern Europe. It only takes a comparatively slight modulation of this flow by the jet stream to move it from mainland Europe to the British Isles.  That happened in the case of the latest very strong ENSO event, catching the UK government unprepared for the resulting floods.

This movement of warm water and air to the East across the Pacific reverses the normal wind pattern in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Normally such rain-bearing winds flow from East to West, that is, from the Americas past Australia and Indonesia to Africa, bringing the Monsoon to India and parts of China. In Mozambique the rainy season is normally from November to April. The mechanism producing the normal pattern is called the Inter-Tropical Converge Zone (ITCZ). What happens is that high pressure areas north and south of the Equator revolve in opposite directions, owing to the Coriolis Effect. So high pressure systems in the Northern hemisphere rotate in a clockwise direction, and anticlockwise in the Southern hemisphere.  The opposite is true for cyclones.  The Coriolis Effect also affects water going down the plughole in a sink or bath.  (So some enterprising Kenyans probably still make money by showing tourists that water goes down the plughole in the opposite direction in sinks on either side of the Equator. The Coriolis Effect shows that the Equator as a physical phenomenon is about 100 metres wide.) 

This Coriolis Effect means that at a certain time of the year, high pressure systems generate winds from opposite rotations that converge in the tropics to drive the rain-bearing winds from East to West: the ITCZ.  ENSO events disrupt this normal pattern and drive the winds in the opposite direction, following the flow of warm water.  The result in Eastern and Southern Africa is often drought. This basic picture can be complicated if the Indian Ocean is itself hot enough to generate some rain, thereby at times causing floods that paradoxically coincide with the more general drought in some East African countries, as happened in 1997-98 and in 2015.

A La Niña event is the opposite of an El Niño, that is, it is a stronger than normal flow of wet winds from the Pacific through the Indian Ocean, and thus brings rainfall well above normal for eastern Africa. On a couple of occasions that I can recall, there have been major cyclones in Mozambique not long after an El Niño event, in 1984 and in the year 2000.

Research on El Niño in Mozambique

Together with the Mozambican historian João Paulo Borges Coelho, I was a member of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) research team that studied the impacts in Mozambique of the El Niño of 1997-98.  We worked together with INAM (Instituto Nacional de Meterologia) as the Mozambican team. The project covered 16 countries, with the African ones being Ethiopia, Kenya and Mozambique. It was funded through Ted Turner’s UNFIP foundation.  The operational director was Dr. Michael Glantz of ESIG (Environmental Societal Impact Group) within NCAR (National Centre for Atmospheric Research) in Boulder, Colorado, USA.  The team included the Head of Global Climate Change at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) HQ in Geneva, and a specialist who wrote a technical report on the way this particular ENSO event had developed.

It was possible to do this technical report and indeed to predict the 1997-98 El Niño because the US government had funded a series of buoys across the Pacific. It was prompted to do so by the large ENSO event of 1981-82 which had a big impact in the USA. These buoys which are located along the two Tropics (Capricorn and Cancer) are still in place and have sensors going down to a depth of 1,500 feet, with data being transmitted to satellites.  The summary results of this UNEP study were published by the United Nations University in Tokyo:  M. Glantz (2002) Once Burned, Twice Shy (2002).  So because of these buoys spanning both Tropics from Indonesia to the Americas it had been known for months that an El Niño was coming in 2015.   Indeed, surprisingly, an ENSO event started in 2014, but for some reason it petered out before it had developed fully. So I wonder if countries were forewarned about the ENSO event of 2015.  It is possible that the ‘failure’ of the 2014 ENSO event may have dented confidence in such forecasts. One might charitably guess that this was why the UK government was unprepared, but I personally doubt that. 

In the case of Mozambique, the 1997-98 forecast did not turn out as expected.  Excellent preparations were made for drought and a resulting famine, but in fact the Indian Ocean was itself unusually hot and generated enough rain on its own to avoid this effect in Mozambique.  During the project on the 1997-98 ENSO event, the overall team covering 16 countries included a meteorologist from Cuba because as indicated above it was known that strong El Niño events often cross Central America and affect the Caribbean and South America.  One can see that this has also happened in 2015, with floods in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay.  Even with a moderate El Niño, Europe can be affected, as was seen with the floods in Germany and Central Europe only about 7 or 8 years ago.  

Meanwhile, various meteorologists are saying that the 2015 ENSO event was probably the strongest El Niño for a century.  I have been looking closely at the global weather for months.  In fact there is a website that I check out almost daily, because it shows ocean temperatures, land temperatures, pressure, winds at cloud level, the various jetstreams and other things. It was this website which showed that this El Niño effectively split into two not long after it peaked in December 2015, which is pretty unusual.  So the rain that hit South America came from the southern part of the split in the warm water (El Niño) in the Pacific.  Guided by the southern jet stream, the winds had carried the rain straight across the southern Andes into Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. The northern part of the El Niño, which was smaller and less warm than the southern part, moved slightly north to California and then generated the floods that hit Texas and Lousiana. That all happened before the northern segment of the split El Niño moved on to Alaska, as described above.

Taking up the point that meteorologists in various countries are saying that this is probably the strongest El Niño for about a century, it should be said that accurate records do not go back before 1957, the International Geophysical Year, but for Mozambique there is a five-point classification from Moderate through to Very Strong El Niño events that goes back to 1850. Other research covering southern Africa as a whole goes from 1800 to 1992, and historical evidence for Mozambique shows that there was a strong EL Niño in 1791.   From the classification on Mozambique starting in 1850, the two strong ones since 1957 are 1981-82, and 1997-98.  The one that occurred in 2015 is definitely comparable to these two.  As part of the UNEP research project that I was involved in, in 1999-2000, I obtained a historical description of famines since 1800 in Mozambique from a German historian who still lives there (Gerhard Liesegang). I then checked these against the list of El Niño events since 1850, and I found two things:

Firstly, in two-thirds of the cases where there was a Moderate Plus to a Very Strong El Niño, there was a drought in southern Mozambique.

Secondly, these droughts often correlated strongly with political unrest and dramatic political change, presumably driven by hunger. This included the rise to power of Shaka, such that the Zulu clan within the Nguni people meant that they were all called Zulu from then on (and various groups were sent north to bring back cattle and slaves – hence the District of Angonia in Mozambique’s Tete Province). It also includes the overthrow of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and other notable historical events.  I was unable to persuade my German colleague Liesegang to agree to a joint publication on this. So the details of that research were never published, although they formed part of the unpublished UNEP report on Mozambique.

On the basis of this historical research and the historical classification of ENSO events, it is evident that this 2015 El Niño now counts as one of the big 4 since 1850.  They are: 1876-78; 1981-82; 1997-98 and 2015-16.  In 1876-78, about 10 million people died of starvation in India, and about 13 million in China.  There are no figures for East Africa but it must have been tens or hundreds of thousands. Those of you familiar with Mozambican history may recall the photographs in the book by Peter Vail & Landeg White.

With regard to the ENSO event of 1876-78, it might be argued that this famine was exacerbated by British colonial policies, including the reorganisation of agriculture in order to grow opium in what was then Bengal, as mentioned in an economic history of colonial and post-colonial India by the well-known economist Bhagwati. M. Davies makes a similar point about famines in India in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. Without in any way disputing that (and indeed Bhagwati makes it clear that there have been no such famines in India since the end of colonial rule) one must be careful about the timing of events here, especially with regard to opium.  In any case, for East Africa and Mozambique, colonial rule did not at this time have much impact. For example, German colonial rule in Tanganyika did not really take hold until the late 1890s, and the ‘prazos’ in Mozambique (which might be described as small scale copies of the British East India Company, in that they were not formal colonial rule under the Portuguese government) did not have much agricultural impact in large swathes of Mozambique.  Nevertheless, the death toll was evidently very high in eastern Africa, despite the difficulties in estimating total numbers.

Moving to the impact of the 2015 event, according to Mozambique News Reports and Clippings No. 315, edited by Joseph Hanlon, and dated 31st March 2016, “315, 366 people were affected by food insecurity as a result of the drought in southern and central Mozambique, the government spokesperson, Deputy Health Minister Mouzinho Saide, said Tuesday 29 Mar. But northern Mozambique faces the opposite problem. Saide said that floods in the north have affected 32,243 people, and have destroyed 4,991 houses and 109 schools. The drought means that Mozambique is facing a serious grain shortage. The country has always had to import most wheat and rice, but it has at least been self-sufficient in maize. This is no longer the case: Saide put this year’s grain deficit at 149,000 tonnes of maize, 267,000 tonnes of rice and 328,000 tonnes of wheat. (AIM 30 Mar).”

A spokesperson for NCAR in Boulder, Colorado, expressed surprised at the lack of serious flooding in Ethiopia, since that normally happens alongside droughts in other areas of Ethiopia during an El Niño event. However, I am less surprised, because that flooding depends on specific conditions in the Indian Ocean, and these do not apply over a wide area.  Ethiopia at the moment has very serious food shortages, because despite the investment in agriculture there, the population has grown a great deal since the ENSO-related famines of 1977 and 1985. 

There is an additional factor that suggests that Mozambique will often be able to cope better with famine than Ethiopia, other aspects being equal.   This is that, as shown in the special issue on Mozambique of the Journal of Southern African Studies published in 1998, people in southern Mozambique are more willing to have recourse to ‘wild foods’ than elsewhere.  The World Food Programme had long been slightly mystified by the survival rates during famines in southern Mozambique, as was explained to me when I was on a joint WFP/FAO Food and Crop Assessment Mission in March 1993. The answer came from fieldwork published in the JSAS special issue in 1998.  I followed this up while on the 1997-98 EL Niño research project, and I asked an Ethiopian colleague about the range of wild foods eaten in Ethiopia during famines.  He confirmed that owing to religious prohibitions from the Coptic Church, there were various wild foods that Ethiopians simply would not eat.  This suggests that ceteris paribus, Ethiopians are probably more vulnerable to famines than people in Mozambique. Such an effect is probably dwarfed by the impact of commercial agriculture in Ethiopia, and I suspect that the impact of the latter may be similar to that of colonial agriculture in India. 

Given the preoccupation in Europe with the migration from the Middle East and North Africa, the response to the 2015 ENSO event in terms of food aid to Africa has been muted.

A controversial discussion

It is worth recalling that some effects of ENSO events can be positive. For example, California has been suffering years of drought and it would have been a great relief if the 2015-16 event had brought sufficient rain to relieve that very damaging situation. Regrettably, the sudden splitting in two and rapid dissipation of the warm water meant that this did not happen, despite the flooding in Texas and Louisiana. More generally, the disruption to normal weather patterns is very damaging, and involves large numbers of fatalities.  At least nowadays the death toll is nothing like that of 1876-78. I suspect that this is partly due to improved infrastructure and well-organised relief efforts. Yet the event of 1997-98, for example, cost at least $50 billion worldwide.  Following the success of the US-funded buoys system in the Pacific, the US and EU funded a similar set of buoys along the Tropics in the Atlantic.  So the US can ‘see’ what is coming on both sides, and Europe to some extent also benefits from that. Unless there is an adequate system of warning, similar to that with tsunami warnings, this may not be enough to further mitigate the impact of ENSO events.

While national meteorological offices can in principle check up on the ENSO Web pages of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at any time, the very fact that such events do not occur regularly means that this task can easily slip down the agenda of things to be monitored. A formal warning to all WMO-registered national meteorological services would probably serve as a well-timed wake-up call to set the disaster management procedures in motion. At the moment, countries vary considerably in their response capabilities, and this will doubtless continue, but lessons have already been learned from 1997-98 and they may need to be disseminated more effectively than publishing a single report. That dissemination could take place in disaster management training. In 2003 there was a disaster management course for ‘training of trainers’ (cascade training) at Africa University in Eastern Zimbabwe. That example should be more widely adopted.

Although it would be very costly, there should at least be some public debate about installing a set of buoys across the Indian Ocean, so that Africa and Asia could have better data. At the moment, a lot of meteorological data in the Indian Ocean is collected by commercial aviation and ships fitted with sensors, but this is inevitably spasmodic. Such a system of buoys would be of wider benefit in monitoring global weather and climate variability, as well as in providing data on when the Indian Ocean is going to generate floods during an El Niño. That aspect is not well understood. Proposing the installation of a costly system at a time of famine is bound to be controversial, but with improved understanding could come better pre-placement of infrastructure, including rescue equipment and food storage facilities. Since this problem has been around since the dawn of human existence, long-term thinking is probably in order.  India and China could surely afford to fund such a system of buoys, and their populations and economies would benefit.

It is not known what triggers ENSO events, but it is known that they are not related to ‘climate change’.  As indicated above, the incipient ENSO event of 2014 petered out before developing into a full-blown event. Establishing the causes of this could well be important. The ‘failure’ of this event to develop fully was predicted months ahead by the British physicist Piers Corbyn, and he gave a causal analysis of why he expected this to take place. Regrettably, this type of analysis is not being taken seriously by the meteorological and climatological establishment.

The reason for this is that they are still living in a Newtonian universe. They state explicitly in public interviews that the weather and climate are governed by gravity and thermodynamics. So electricity is relegated to a very minor secondary role, as when ice crystals rubbing against one another in a storm produce static electricity, which gives rise to lightning. While this undoubtedly happens, it is by no means the whole story, but it is the bigger picture that they fail to see. While they have known since 1995 about red sprites and blue jets (and they have known for even longer about noctilucent clouds) they do not seem to consider the implications. They have also known for about 20 years that lightning frequently strikes simultaneously at two different locations, often hundreds of miles apart, yet once again they do not fully consider the implications, and the necessity for studying the interaction between the weather and the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Such an apparent failure is striking when it is widely known that the ‘solar wind’ can at times trigger the Auroras (Borealis and Australis). So electrical phenomena within the magnetosphere evidently do derive from the impact of the ‘solar wind’.  The problem here is that the ‘solar wind’ is really an electrical current flowing out from the Sun to the edge of the solar system, but it is not thought of in those terms by mainstream astronomers and meteorologists. A stream of charged particles flowing from one place to another is an electric current.  Yet astronomers do not think of it in those terms, because the do not think that electric currents can last for any distance in the vacuum of space. This error is a result of the fragmentation of physics, since astronomers are not taught about plasma physics. Astronomers think that they can explain this ‘solar wind’ flow as a product of the alleged thermonuclear reaction in the Sun, but that argument does not stand up to scrutiny. It cannot explain the acceleration of these particles after they leave the Sun, whereas treating it as an electrical discharge can do so.

So the Sun is not just supplying heat to the Earth: it is also supplying energy in the form of electricity.  Among other effects, this affects the behaviour of the jet-streams near both Poles, and it was this phenomenon which Corbyn correctly used to forecast that the 2014 El Niño would not develop fully. It seems reasonable to guess that it is electricity which actually triggers an ENSO event in the first place, but to my knowledge no research has yet been done on this.

Examination of ice cores (covering thousands of years) from Greenland and Lake Vostok in Antarctica show that the Earth’s climate variability has a distinct pattern: it is a fractal pattern and is probably carried as a signal on the electrical current from the Sun. This pattern holds true even for very recent time series data after the year 2000.  It is time for debates on ‘climate change’ to take account of the full range of phenomena that influence weather and climate.


It should be evident by now that the effects of an ENSO event can vary geographically even within a single country, and that such events themselves vary considerably over time. Even with a single event, the drought in southern Africa can last longer in some places than others.  For example, the drought continued in Angola into 1993 when in the rest of southern Africa it had finished in 1992.  That meant that it was difficult to persuade donors to fund famine relief for Angola at that time, although eventually such efforts were successful. 

Yet the general pattern is clear and can be used for disaster mitigation. I have already mentioned food storage and other measures to promote food security. It is not at all out of place to mention the biblical story of Joseph in Egypt and the 7 fat years followed by 7 lean years. Whatever its historical basis (and Joseph was a genuine historical figure, as attested by coins in the Cairo Museum, who lived during the reign of the Hiksos, the ‘lords of the desert’) this story sounds like a description of a strong La Niña followed by a strong El Niño.  Surely Africa has suffered long enough from this.

The situation is certainly not helped by the policies of the World Bank, especially the abolition of food marketing boards and the consequent loss of grain storage facilities.  The disastrous effects of such policies have been well documented for Zimbabwe, which was once the bread basket of Southern Africa.   Yet the experience of Zimbabwe is by no means unique.  When I was in Mozambique in 1990, DfID was funding a specialist to train people in techniques for using cheap forms of grain storage in a manner that reduced losses to insect depredation.  So the common sense of cheap and effective grain storage was well understood by technical experts. Mozambique at that time had a very effective National Directorate for the Prevention and Combat of Natural Disasters, which had coped pretty well with the effects of war as well as ENSO events.   Yet such knowledge was discarded in favour of the already discredited neoliberal orthodoxy, a zombie theory that keeps coming back from the dead, with fatal consequences for the poor.  

Gary Littlejohn was Briefings and Debates editor of the Review of African Political Economy from 2010 to 2015. He is the author of Secret Stockpiles: A review of disarmament efforts in Mozambique, Working Paper 21, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, October 2015.


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