Durban - The El Niño weather phenomenon is set to hit South Africa again in early spring, increasing chances of widespread droughts.
A forecast by the Climate Prediction Centre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, said the phenomenon could be a catalyst for further global warming.
According to initial predictions, the likelihood of El Niño returning within the next three months stood at 58 percent, and 78 percent by the beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere.
In the past the phenomenon has caused chaotic weather patterns around the world.
El Niño does not affect all countries in the same way. In some places it can result in severe drought and brings rainfall in countries that are perennially dry.
The phenomenon is caused by warm water coming to the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The interaction of the water with the atmosphere can throw weather patterns into disarray resulting in floods, droughts and fires in countries around the world.
According to news source Al Jazeera, the global economic impact of El Niño in 1997/98 was calculated to be R364 billion to R416bn.
According to statistics from Grain South Africa, total maize production in South Africa fell from 9 582.2 tons in 1996/97 to 7 203.5 in 1997/98, coinciding with El Niño.
In KwaZulu-Natal yellow maize production fell from 218 tons in 1996/97 to 158 tons in 1997/98.
Agricultural meteorologist with Santam in Bloemfontein, Johan van den Berg, said: “The four driest years in the past 28 years were El Nino years.”
The driest years were 1991/92, 1994/95, 1997/98 and 2006/07.
“The combination of El Niño and an inflated frequency of tropical cyclones is very often responsible for drought conditions,” he said.
According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: “Once an El Niño event begins, it can last from 12 to 18 months, and sometimes as long as 24 months.”
But, in the past 16 to 17 years cool conditions associated with La Niña, El Niño’s little sister, have prevailed, but this year things might change.
Dr Willem Landman, atmospheric modeller at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said: “Southern Africa normally experiences drought and high temperature conditions during El Nino events.”
Landman said the best way to minimise the effect of El Nino was to save water.
Neil Macleod, head of water and sanitation at eThekwini Municipality, said the city had experienced good rainfall over the past few years.
“From a resource point of view we are in a happy position for the next two years.”
Macleod warned that from 2016 there was a risk that water restrictions would have to be imposed if water was not used sparingly.