What is El Nino?

El Nino is a periodic occurrence where the sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean become warmer. Described as a warm oceanic phase, a current of warm nutrient-poor water replaces the cool nutrient-rich water within the Pacific area.

This phenomenon happens at irregular intervals of two to seven years and lasts for as long as half a year to two years when it occurs. There is an alternate cold oceanic phase, named as La Nina.

When did El Nino last strike Malaysia?

It was last recorded as happening from June 2009 and May 2010. While its severity is not to be taken lightly, the worse cases to afflict the nation happened during the period of 1982 – 1983 and 1997 – 1998 in which widespread forest fires contributed to severe haze conditions.

The phenomenon was not restricted to the region, it caused a global scale of calamities with many losing their lives and livelihoods from natural disasters caused by El Nino.

Will Malaysia be experiencing El Nino anytime soon?

There is a prediction by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) that El Nino’s impact on Malaysia will peak between November 2015 and January 2016. An expert from the National Antarctica Research Centre has predicted that El Nino’s impact this year could be as bad as in the late nineties. With higher temperatures and drier weather, crops are vulnerable.

According to the Meteorological Deparment, Sabah and Sarawak would be the first to feel the effects of El Nino.

What will happen if El Nino is as bad as feared?

Rice-producing states like Kedah may experience low yields, which will lead us to lean more on imported rice. If there’s demand from a world shortage, then the price of these agricultural goods could go up.

If the drought is so severe as to affect water reserves, we might have to go through another bout of water rationing, like we did last year.

Is there any positive impact?

Malaysia could stand to benefit from exports of palm oil, which may be in more demand from other countries as a result of El Nino. For example, India’s soybean crops (a source of oil) have been affected by El Nino, which means India may be forced to import more palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, the effects of the weather change will be felt on oil palm trees further down the line, potentially reducing our yield of these crops next year.

Which countries will be worst hit by El Nino?

The Philippines is bracing for one the “strongest El Nino in recorded history”, with calls for citizens to conserve water and electricity in the event that drought hits. The government is also planning cloud-seeding and water management programmes.

India has seen dozens of farmers commit suicide after failed crops earlier this year, and it’s feared that El Nino will affect soybean, cotton and rice production. Indonesia’s forest fires may intensify because of El Nino, as well as threatening its cocoa, coffee and rice crops. Australia is also keeping a close eye on its wheat crops after seeing early signs of El Nino.

In parts of Northern and Southern America, El Nino is expected to cause heavy rainfall and flooding, as well as more typhoons and hurricanes.

 Lyn Ong and Ling Low

First published June 2014. Updated 21 September 2015.

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