Understanding the Impacts of the Current El Niño Event

Programme overview

Understanding the Impacts of the Current El Niño Event was a programme funded by NERC and the Department for International Development (DFID) which aimed to advance our understanding of the impacts of the 2015-16 El Niño in low and middle income countries, to increase preparedness and resilience to future events.

Background & objectives

El Niño is a prolonged warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and east-central Pacific that occurs irregularly at 3-6 year intervals. El Niño weakens the trade winds and alters the monsoon pattern which affects global weather patterns and typically results in drought conditions in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia and enhanced rainfall in Eastern Africa and South America.

The World Meteorological Organization predicted that the 2015-16 El Niño event would be one of the three strongest recorded since 1950[1] and it would have a significant effect on a number of low and middle income countries. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated that 11 million children would be at risk of hunger, disease and lack of water in Eastern and Southern Africa as a result of the 2015-16 El Niño[2]. The India Meteorological Department reported that India as a whole suffered a rainfall deficit of 12-15% during the 2015 summer monsoon, with some regions experiencing a deficit of almost 50%. During 2015-16, wildfires in Indonesia, exacerbated by the drought conditions, resulted in hazardous air pollution levels across Southeast Asia.

El Niño forecasts, mitigation strategies and the subsequent humanitarian response are all strongly informed by analyses of previous events. More accurate and reliable information on this 2015-16 event (eg the scale of the floods and droughts and their effect on livelihoods, food security, ecosystem services, disease vectors, and key infrastructure) was needed to enable improvements in El Niño models and forecasts, and ultimately increase preparedness and resilience to future events. Studying the 2015-16 El Niño was particularly important as it was an unusually strong event. The last major El Niño was in 1997-98 and since then there have been major advances in sensor networks, satellite measurements, modelling capacities and data analysis and assimilation techniques that were available to apply to the 2015-16 El Niño.

The overall aim of this research programme was to address the need to have a better understanding of the impacts of the 2015-16 El Niño event in low and middle income countries. To enable this aim to be achieved projects we funded to:

  • provide evidence of the impacts of the 2015-16 El Niño event, particularly at the local and regional level
  • have the potential to contribute to increased resilience to El Niño events, and therefore to increased societal wellbeing and economic growth
  • focus on the collection of data that is timely and urgent that cannot be supported through other funding routes.

Reports & key findings

Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web.

View details of funded applications - external link


  1. World Meteorological Organization El Niño update - external link -
  2. UNICEF El Niño press release - external link -