Sun | Oct 1, 2023

Earth Today | Prep for it

Local scientists say planning key to coming El Niño event

Published:Thursday | June 1, 2023 | 1:15 AM

LOCAL SCIENTISTS have urged careful attention to planning for an unusual and very dry time in the Caribbean, given the El Niño event that is anticipated in the coming months.

“We know that an El Niño affects our climate. It biases us to be dry, especially in the late rainy season (August to November). If that plays out, having already had water deficiency up to this point in the year, we could be in a lot of trouble,” cautioned Prof Michael Taylor, respected climate scientist and dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.

“We should prepare for the scenario of a dry year. The very warm Caribbean Sea will also make it hot. Imagine being very hot and not having enough water. We need to be prepared,” he added.

That preparation, Taylor said, includes “conservation, harvesting and storage, efficient usage, and restrictions on usage”.

“Another level must be identifying sources not usually utilised. For example, are there dormant wells that can be reactivated? The biggest is coordinating with the technical expertise resident in, for example, the Water Resources Authority, the Met Service, the National Water Commission, the National Irrigation Commission, The UWI, etc., to make smart decisions based on data, monitoring and science,” added Taylor, a physicist.

He said it is also essential to make provisions for the most vulnerable in the society, including with respect of their health.

“Serious thought must be given now about what programmes, schemes, mechanisms can be implemented that will target the elderly, outdoor workers, farmers, the homeless, the sick, the very young, the poorest amongst us, etc., who will bear the brunt of the unfavourable climate or what infrastructure needs to be put in place at hospitals and schools, should drought conditions persist,” Taylor insisted.

El Niño events have traditionally forced drier conditions in the Caribbean with the two most severe droughts to impact the region (2009-2010 and 2014-2016) having occurred during El Niño events.

“The World Meteorological Organisation in early May suggested there is a 60 per cent chance for a transition to El Niño during May-July 2023. This will increase to about 70 per cent in June-August and 80 per cent between July and September,” Taylor explained, noting the urgency to beginning preparations now.

Successful preparations, he said, must be informed by science.

“Science gives us some leeway to prepare. In fact, in this instance, scientists, including regional scientists, have been indicating the potential change of climate regime from La Niña from late year or early 2023. That’s a few months lead time. Unfortunately, scientists sometimes feel like lone voices crying out in the wilderness, hoping to be heard. However, there should be close consultation, especially as the next few months unfold, when the picture becomes even clearer,” Taylor insisted.

Geographer and sustainable development professional Eleanor Jones agreed.

“We tend to push these things aside as though they are not important; we are not taking science into our policy and practice. Each time we have drought, we worry about water but after the rain comes, we forget about it. It is time for us to pay attention,” she said.

For her, this includes collaborative action involving local communities.

“It is government that sets the framework but individual action is necessary. Community level planning is therefore very important,” she noted.

“Currently, we ignore the older people with the anecdotal evidence on the ground; we ignore the science and then when the crisis comes, we try to find money to correct it. We need to look forward. The climate of yesterday is not the climate of tomorrow and we need to pay attention to that,” added Jones, who is head of the consultancy firm, Environmental Solutions Limited.

Like Taylor, she said that includes giving attention to the efficient use of water resources in order to limit waste; recycling grey water for irrigation at the level of the home and institutions where possible; and adopting technologies that aid those efforts.