A ShelterBox team is in Paraguay responding to the worst flooding in half a century. This is just one consequence of El Niño, the little-understood but often devastating climate phenomenon, which this year has already been branded as ‘Godzilla’.

El Niño could hardly be less appropriately named. It is Spanish for a small harmless boy, or ‘Christ child’, a phrase coined by Peruvian sailors who noted warmer seas at the end of most years. In reality this child is a brutal annual climatic event, which in some years stirs up ferocious storms across South East Asia, the Pacific and the Americas.

2015/2016’s El Niño is already feared by meteorologists to be among the most destructive ever recorded, and has been labelled a ‘Godzilla El Niño’.

El Niños are triggered when winds in the Pacific weaken or reverse direction, resulting in a warming of the ocean in the central and eastern Pacific, mainly along the equator. Clouds and storms then track the warm water like a magnet, altering jet stream paths and stirring up deadly climate events around the world.

The worst El Niño on record so far was back in 1997 / 1998, and brought catastrophic rainfall to California and Peru, heat waves across Australia, and fires in Indonesia – the severe conditions resulted in an estimated 23,000 deaths. This year’s El Niño has already given the United States a wild Christmas season – balmy along the east coast, but with violent storms and near-record flooding in the south and midwest. It has also triggered the worst floods in five decades in South America.

For the first time since records began, two tropical stormsone in the Atlantic and one in the Pacifichave appeared at the same time in January. Named Alex and Pali, these storms are being fueled by El Niño’s unusually warm surface waters. Rare enough on their own so early in the year, but their appearance together at the same time in January is unprecedented. A recent satellite image from NASA, which measures sea surface heights, warns that the worst of the droughts and flooding may still be to come, a forecast that is very troubling to humanitarian relief agencies.

Tracking all this activity is ShelterBox, a disaster relief agency that provides emergency shelter and equipment to displaced families.

ShelterBox currently has a team in Paraguay making final arrangements to import 2,000 shelter kits from pre-positioned storage in Panama. Shelter kits contain heavy-duty tarpaulins and tools that can be used to create emergency structures, and to waterproof and repair damaged buildings. In Asunción, Paraguay’s capital and largest city, at least 100,000 of its 2 million populationhave already fled the rising floodwaters.

Operations Co-ordinator Phil Duloy has seen first-hand Paraguay’s attempts to contain swollen rivers. Sand bags are constantly being reinforced by public services and organisations in the city of Pilar. They have been effective in preventing a large amount of damage and displacement, and industrial and portable pumps have been distributed and moved around the city in an attempt to bring the water level down and keep it away from people’s homes. The primary and immediate needs are shelter and livelihood support. I have heard of many people breaking into their meagre savings just to survive.’

Phil and his ShelterBox colleagues are working in partnership with the Paraguayan Red Cross, and are also reaching out into the Neembuca and San Pedro areas to assess emergency shelter needs. ShelterBox Operations Team Leader James Luxton is set to join them within days. He says, ‘Only two years ago ShelterBox provided aid in Paraguay to communities deluged by floods, so we have good contacts already in the country and recent experience of the territory and issues.’

The fact that El Niño is stirring up some major climatic events this year will certainly stretch humanitarian agencies’ resources. But ShelterBox has aid pre-positioned all over the world, so we are well placed to respond speedily when we are invited by any government, and where we can help to meet the needs of families in distress.