Relief from El Niño may spell new problems for Colombia

Wayuu people in La Guajira
Wayuu people in La Guajira

Relief may finally be in sight for millions of Colombians devastated by an unusually strong El Niño weather pattern that brought drought and searing temperatures to much of the country.

But even that potential respite comes with a cautionary note.

In their latest diagnostic released last week, experts at the U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict that “a transition to [El Niño] neutral is likely during late Northern Hemisphere spring or early summer 2016.”

The report also suggests the possibility that a return to neutral Pacific sea surface temperatures could be followed by a shift to La Niña conditions in the fall.

Current forecasts give only a 44 percent chance that El Niño will still be in effect by July, compared to a 46 percent chance of a return to neutral conditions, according to the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

By November, however, the chance of a La Niña pattern rises to 50 percent, making it a slightly more likely scenario than a return to normal ocean temperatures.

The report cautions, “while there is both model and physical support for La Niña following strong El Niño, considerable uncertainty remains.”

Characterized in Colombia by lower temperatures and higher rainfall, La Niña could bring too much of a good thing. Past systems have cause flooding and landslides.

But even a brief return to normal climactic conditions could be a lifesaver.

During months of higher than average temperatures and lower than average rainfall, rivers dried up, forest fires raged and families were threatened by a lack of food and water.

In the northern peninsula of La Guajira, the Wayúu indigenous community has been devastated by malnutrition and the lack of drinking water. Harsh climate conditions have claimed the lives of 3,000 children during the last year, according to Javier Rojas of the Shipia Wayúu organization.

The tragedy of infant mortality in La Guajira has also generated outrage against the government of Juan Manuel Santos, accused of doing far too little, too late.

But there is also concern that a return to normal or above-average rains could cause an explosion in Zika cases. Colombia is already the second hardest-hit country, with the largest number of cases behind Brazil.

Dry weather may have helped keep the mosquito population in check, however, raising fears that wetter weather could exacerbate the outbreak.


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