El Nino may cut Colombia's rainfall by 80 percent in quarter-one 2019: minister

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - The El Nino weather phenomenon could reduce rainfall in Colombia by 80 percent in the first quarter of 2019, the country’s environment minister said on Tuesday, causing water shortages and forest fires.

El Nino is a warming of ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific. In Colombia it is associated with crop damage and flash floods, while in other countries it can cause intense rain.

The South American country, where the majority of electricity is generated with hydropower, suffered nearly a year of drought conditions between 2015 and 2016 which almost led to energy rationing.

“El Nino is maturing and in its maturity is impacting 90 percent of the country,” Environment Minister Ricardo Lozano told journalists.

The government is working to prevent forest fires and avoid further deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon region, he said, adding that low rainfall may extend beyond the first quarter. He called on residents to save water to avoid potential rationing.

El Nino can also negatively affect coffee and banana crops. Colombia is the world’s top grower of washed arabica coffee.

Drought also generally causes an increase in food prices, with the potential to stoke short-term inflation.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Paul Simao