El Niño: A Dichotomy of Drought and Deluge

How can the same El Niño weather pattern that causes floods like the one that recently devastated Peru also cause droughts like the one causing famine in east Africa? To quote a singer/songwriter popular in the 1960s:

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
—Bob Dylan


What is El Niño, anyway?

In super simplified terms, it’s a cyclical weather pattern named by 19th Century Peruvian men who fished in the Pacific Ocean. The fishermen knew El Niño was arriving when the water became unusually warm and fish became less plentiful.

The name means The Little Boy (or Christ Child) in Spanish, thus named because the warming usually happened around Christmas time, once every three to seven years. To these fishermen, warm water was bad news. Fish followed the nutrient-rich cold water, and El Niño took the cold water away from the Peruvian coast.

The trouble this little boy stirs up starts with a large scale weakening of the trade winds that normally blow from South America toward Asia.

The El Niño weather pattern occurs in the tropical Pacific Ocean, the area of the world’s largest body of water that straddles the equator. Scientists split that band into the Western, Eastern and Central Pacific regions.

Pacific Ocean

Photo courtesy of Austrian Bureau of Metrology (www.bom.gov.au)

Tropical Pacific: Where the Trouble Begins

Because of air pressure, ocean depth, land masses, the direction of wind and maybe a few other things, the water in the Western Pacific is warmer than in the Eastern Pacific.

As when you put hot water in your bathtub and get steam on your bathroom mirror, the warm water of the Western Pacific causes high humidity and lots of rain in places like eastern Asia, Polynesia, Australia and myriad islands (including Hawaii).

The air above the Eastern Pacific is cooler and drier. This arid band extends from the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula to the northern part of Peru.

El Nino normal conditions

In normal conditions, trade winds blow warm water to the Western Pacific, keeping the Eastern Pacific cooler.

Air Pressure: What Keeps Things Normal … Or Not

Hot air is lighter and rises, creating a low pressure system and thunderstorms-o-plenty in the Western Pacific region. Cool air is heavier and sinks, creating a high pressure system and drier conditions in the Eastern Pacific region.

Surface winds blow toward low air pressure, pushing warm water into a pool in the Western Pacific. Cooler water gets pushed up from the bottom of the ocean in the Eastern Pacific, along with the nutrients that fish love.

During El Niño, the air pressure gets lazy over the Eastern Pacific. The prevailing winds slow down, and air pressure increases over the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans.

El Nino conditions

During an El Nino cycle, the winds shift, cause drought in some parts of the world and floods in others.

Trade Winds: Shifted by Air Pressure

When air pressure changes, the direction of the wind can change.

The trade winds were so named because early commerce relied on the easterly winds that circle the globe at the equator and create currents that together propel ships toward their destinations. The Earth’s rotation causes the wind, but the air pressure is what keeps them headed easterly.

During El Niño, the high pressure of the Eastern Pacific weakens, allowing the wind to shift directions. This pushes cooler water into the Western Pacific and warmer water into the Eastern Pacific. When that happens, weather patterns shift.

Some parts of the world, like eastern Africa (where Food for the Hungry works), experience drought. Other parts of the world, like Peru (also where FH works), experience heavy rain that the soil isn’t prepared to absorb.

The Impact: The Most Vulnerable Suffer

Areas of the world that could experience intense drought because of a strong El Niño include Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, parts of eastern and southern Africa, the western Pacific basin islands (including Hawaii), Central America and various parts of the western and northern U.S.

Heavy rainfall occurs along the western coasts of Peru, Mexico and California. El Niño also prevents cold water from upwelling along the eastern edge of the Pacific. When there is no upwelling, there are no fish. That’s bad news for people whose livelihoods rely on fish.

El Niño and the United States

A strong El Niño affects North America during the next winter. Some parts of Canada and the U.S.’s western states may see warmer-than-average winter temperatures. The Gulf Coast and Florida might have a wet winter, but the Ohio Valley and the Pacific Northwest might have an unusually dry winter.

El Niño can have a lasting impact on weather, ocean conditions and fisheries worldwide.

El Niño and Poverty

Though El Niño is a natural, cyclical event, the phenomenon in 2016 was the strongest on record. Many countries in East Africa are now in the grips of famine. For some, the drought has passed, but the impact remains. Conversely, rainfall in some parts of South America has caused severe flooding.

Most people in developing countries do backbreaking work to earn less than $2 a day. Many live in flimsy houses that a hearty wind can blow away. They might also have no local source of clean water, causing women and children to walk dozens of miles one way to gather as much water as they can carry back to their homes for cooking, cleaning, bathing and drinking.

Anything that upsets their already-fragile life (like El Niño) can cause disaster.

The 2016 El Nino resulted in drought in Africa, reducing water sources, crops and livestock and making life harder for the vulnerable people Food for the Hungry serves.

When El Niño causes a drought in Africa, livelihoods disappear. Livestock die from lack of water and grazing land. Crops fail because of reduced rainfall. Children go hungry. Malnutrition skyrockets, making even a common cold deadly.

Livelihoods also disappear when El Niño causes flooding in South America. Food, livestock and people get washed away. Standing water spreads disease. Children go hungry; malnutrition skyrockets.

How FH Helps

Food for the Hungry works in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. We’ve helped communities become more drought resistant, and we help people prepare for disasters to minimize the impact on the communities where we serve. We also bring emergency food and water to famine-stricken countries in Africa, and we’re helping rain-soaked areas of Peru.

In Kenya, we helped stabilize the livestock market, allowing communities to become more drought resilient. Through the Kenya Resilient Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development (KENYA RAPID), we improved water availability and water service delivery to people and livestock. The program also improved hygiene and sanitation practices, along with rangeland management. (Read about the impact on one woman.)


In Ethiopia, we helped families build a hedge of protection around themselves. We provided agricultural assistance and water projects (such as digging wells) that cushioned the El Niño drought’s impact on crops and livestock. (Read how one woman was helped.)



In Peru, we responded to floods triggered by El Niño with emergency food and clean water. But the flooding contaminated water supplies with deadly diseases, so we came back with water filters that stripped out 99 percent of the contaminants.

What You Can Do

With your generous donation, you can help Food for the Hungry respond to emergencies and provide longer-term solutions that help communities become more resilient to the increasingly-difficult cycles of nature.