Experiences of the 2015-16 El Niño from across the Tropics highlight the importance of building long-term resilience

Conservation Agriculture in Malawi (Credit: Marcelo Galdos)

It is widely anticipated that the global climate in 2019 will once again be affected by El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean. This can contribute to a range of experiences of weather extremes across the Tropics, including in the GCRF-AFRICAP focal countries.

Following the latest extreme El Niño event in 2015-16, the NERC SHEAR programme funded a range of projects that documented the experiences of, and responses to, associated weather extremes in a diverse range of socio-ecological systems across the Tropics. This included a study, led by the University of Leeds, on the resilience of conservation agriculture systems in central and southern Malawi. The findings from this, and other projects funded under the call, have recently been synthesised in a paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change, with the aim of learning lessons about resilient responses to extreme weather.

In addition to the Malawi experience, the authors draw on insights from: mangrove-lagoon systems on the Colombian Caribbean coast; cocoa farming landscapes in Ghana’s Central Region; mixed crop-livestock systems in southern Ethiopia; managed and natural forests in Borneo; and food gardens on Mount Wilhelm in Papua New Guinea.

The paper focuses particularly on the extent to which a recent history of experiences in each of these systems has shaped the contemporary resilience of the system and its capacity to adapt to, or recover from, extreme temperatures and rainfall patterns.

In Malawi, there is evidence that long-term investments in improving soil health have increased the capacity of agricultural systems to withstand unusual rainfall patterns, at least to a limited extent. However, there are also examples of declining resilience. For example, on the Colombian coast, long-term erosions of fisheries and coastal system health have acted to limit the options that local people have for shifting their livelihood strategies in response to rainfall-related changes in river deltas.

Cocoa farming in Central Region, Ghana

Learning from past extreme weather events has proved important in improving the overall resilience of systems, as has been evident in Ghana, where measures have been taken to mitigate against the risk of wild fires spreading during times of drought (as experienced in 1983).

Collectively, these cases highlight the importance of preserving a memory within social and ecological systems, so that short-term shocks (climate-related or otherwise) have a positive legacy, and so that long-term trends are recognised, particularly those that erode ecological health or that create lock-ins to inflexible livelihoods. In order to build resilience to future climate variability, policies and practices that are short-sighted, both in terms of looking back and looking forward, should be avoided – a lesson that is being recognised in the ongoing development of Malawi’s National Resilience Strategy.

Experiences such as the 2015-16 El Niño can be powerful catalysts for governments and institutions to invest in improving long-term ecological health; to address historical social inequities; to facilitate social learning and access to (climate) information; to open up opportunities of livelihood diversification; and to provide stable social safety nets. Sharing these experiences across contexts and continents may just reinforce this catalyst.