Southeast Asia facing severe drought

By: Southeast Asia Globe editorial - Posted on: February 12, 2016 | Current Affairs

This year’s El Niño is causing food and water shortages across the region

With weather experts still assessing whether this year’s El Niño is the most extreme on record, its effects are being felt across the world, not least in Southeast Asia, where prolonged drought conditions are gripping most countries.

El Niño
A Thai woman with children searching for snails and other life in the cracks of earth of a dried out lake in Udon Thani province. Photo: EPA/Barbara Walton

The current El Niño – a cycle of extreme weather conditions caused by warmer than average sea temperatures in the Pacific – has been of concern to governments and agencies since December 2014 when the current ocean warming began.

“It’s one of the most severe, perhaps one of the three most severe, El Niño events recorded,” said Sanny Jegillos, a senior adviser on disaster risk reduction, at the UNDP’s Bangkok regional hub. “But the effects vary from one country to another. Some countries have better water management therefore those are not as badly affected as others, but some have actually been impacted since 2014.”

The El Niño caused the monsoon at the end of last year to last for a shorter amount of time than normal, hence the drought situation, said Carmen van Hesse, regional emergency adviser for Unicef’s East Asia and the Pacific. This resulted in poorer crop yields and lower water levels. The current El Niño is exceptionally bad, she added. “It hasn’t been as bad as this since 1997-1998.”

According to a Unicef report, El Niño: Overview of Impact, Projected Humanitarian Needs and Response, released on 29 January, three countries in Southeast Asia are of greatest concern to them: Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste. In Indonesia, drought conditions have caused crops to be planted late, leading to low production of staples such as maize and rice. Significantly below-average rainfall in most parts of the Philippines is expected from January to April, the report said, with severe damage predicted to farms, fisheries and forests that may “directly affect more than 12 million Filipinos relying on agriculture as a primary source of livelihood”. For Timor-Leste, Unicef estimates that up to 50% of the area of Timor-Leste could potentially become food and water insecure by the second quarter of 2016.

In general though, it seems that Southeast Asian countries are better prepared that during the last big El Niño event in 1997-1998. Many Southeast Asian countries have better irrigation facilities, better water management abilities “and are clearer in terms of who gets what in times of water scarcity,” said Jegillos. “We don’t see problems with conflict in terms of water use compared to ’97/’98.”

However, Thailand has been hit doubly hard as even before the onset of the El Niño in 2015 rainfall was already reduced and so water levels were already down by 30%-40%.

Jegillos predicts that drought conditions will persist for the next four or five months. This means that many in the region will be at risk of food shortages and, of course, water scarcity. This brings the risk of contracting waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea as people are forced to use contaminated water supplies. “Diarrhoea is one of the major killers of children around the world,” van Hesse said.

But the effects may continue longer, especially in Cambodia “where you have very little irrigation facilities and there will be crop failure, even if there’s a normal monsoon in July or August”, Jegillos predicted. “So the effects of water scarcity could go on into 2017.”