El Niño's impact threatens food supply in Asia

Extreme drought conditions threatening food security in several Asian nations have probably been triggered by the El Niño weather phenomen, according to a Special Report issued by FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS).

Extreme drought conditions contributed to hundreds of devastating forest fires in Indonesia

The report cautions that no definite association can be made between El Niño's events and changes in climate. Based on irregular weather patterns seen in the Asia and Pacific Rim region in the past, however, the report concludes, "It is most likely that the current drought situation in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Thailand can be traced back to the phenomenon".

El Niño is the name given to the local warming of surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru, affecting atmospheric circulation worldwide (see Box). The report on weather anomalies in the Asia and Pacific region is the second in a series on El Niño's potential impact on the food supply situation in various parts of the world. The first report focused on the weather phenomenon's effects in Latin America.

Indonesia has been hit hard by the recent drought - the worst reported in 50 years. Southern Sumatra and Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, Java and eastern parts of the country have suffered unseasonably dry conditions for several months. Although recent heavy rains have allowed some respite, the first monsoon rains may not come till November - they normally begin in September. Crops most affected by the drought conditions are likely to be the staples, maize and rice. Official estimates currently indicate that drought could affect some 426 000 hectares of rice. Important income-generating non-food crops such as coffee, cocoa and rubber are also expected to suffer.

Prevailing dry conditions have also exacerbated forest fires that are threatening agriculture and forest plantations and reducing water supplies. A resulting choking haze is affecting the health of millions of people in Indonesia, as well as in neighbouring Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

An increase in food imports and a rise in prices of agricultural commodities may result next year in Indonesia if domestic production declines as predicted. Although national food stocks are reported to be sufficient at present, government agencies are making contingency plans to supply emergency food rations to vulnerable segments of the population should the food supply situation tighten.

In Papua New Guinea, the government has declared a state of emergency, as concern over the food situation increases. So far, official reports indicate that up to 1 million people have been affected by extreme weather conditions and face food shortages. Large numbers of highlanders, who rely on home gardens, are reported to be deserting villages in search for food as drought has resulted in widespread bushfires destroying homes, crops, grasslands and forests. Several atolls and small island communities in various provinces are also reported to be in need of assistance.

In the Philippines, weather problems may worsen with reduced rainfall later in the year. The Ministry of Agriculture has initiated programmes to limit the effects on crops, including campaigns to promote the use of rice varieties that mature earlier than traditional types and the distribution of organic and inorganic fertilizers to enhance yields. Although current food stocks are considered sufficient for the rest of this year, the food situation is being closely monitored. In mid-September the national authorities were authorized to import 300 000 tonnes of maize to mitigate the impact of a possible shortage.

In Thailand, prolonged drought from April to July and floods in August are expected to result in a reduction in crop output this year. The drought mainly affected food crops, sugar cane and coffee, while the floods reduced rubber, palm oil and shrimp production. The floods also resulted in a number of human casualties and left several thousand people homeless.

Other countries in the region that have had significant weather anomalies this year, including serious and prolonged drought in parts of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, are also covered in the report. The resultant deterioration in Korea DPR's food situation is of particular concern.

The third report in the series on El Niño's impact on crop production throughout the world will focus on southern Africa.

El Niño: the phenomenon

El Niño (Spanish for Christ Child) is the name given by Peruvian fisherfolk to the warming of the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean that tends to occur around Christmas. A natural event that recurs in more or less regular cycles (on average every four to five years), El Niño affects the Pacific from Peru to Indonesia. The local warming of the world's largest ocean also has repercussions for global atmospheric circulation of winds and waters.

Although some of its effects may be beneficial, the phenomenon is better known for the havoc it can wreak: harvests can be lost, fishery yields reduced and oceanic ecosystems endangered, threatening food security in many regions. The disturbance can produce droughts in southern Africa, parts of India, Indonesia, Australia and certain regions of the Americas, floods in Kenya, Argentina and the United States, erratic monsoons in South Asia and extremely high temperatures in Japan and some regions of Canada.

Although the warming of the waters may last from 12 months to five years, a time lag between the phenomenon itself and many of its most important climatic consequences means that repercussions are long term. The intense El Niño of 1982/83 brought devastation to more than 15 countries.

A growing number of experts have criticized press coverage and interpretation of scientific predictions about the current El Niño as scaremongering. FAO agrometeorologist Rene Gommes said, "It is important not to minimize risks but also to remember that there have been El Niños without any catastrophes and catastrophes without any El Niños". Back to article

14 October 1997

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