Southeast Asia's Dry Spell

Posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 by Prashanth Parameswaran

Southeast Asia is currently weathering its worst drought in decades. The dry spell, which could stretch far into 2011, threatens to curb vital industries, drive up food prices, and trigger water shortages.

Analysts attribute the drought to the resurgence of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a recurring climate pattern that has raised ocean temperatures across the Pacific by up to a decade high of two degrees.

The current dry spell will have dire consequences for Southeast Asia. The Mekong River is at its lowest level in 50 years, and could deprive millions of water necessary for irrigation and drinking. Major agricultural producers are also projected take a hit. Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the world’s largest producers of palm oil, could see their projected industry targets slashed by 5 to 10 percent. Thailand and Vietnam, together responsible for half of world rice exports, have indicated they may scale down their crop production estimates by one million tons.

The crisis will likely energize future efforts to formulate climate change mitigation strategies. Southeast Asian countries may eye innovative ways to reduce their reliance on global agricultural supplies and improve energy efficiency. Genetically-modified rice grains are already being bred in Indonesia and Vietnam, and could be in production in 2012. Meanwhile, the Philippines, whose hydroelectric power plants are paralyzed by water shortages, is considering using some of the $250 million in climate change-related aid it will receive from multilateral organizations over the next few years to promote solar and other renewable energy sources.

The dry spell could also catalyze more regional efforts. Within the next few years, experts from 11 Asian countries (6 from Southeast Asia) are expected to provide publicly available estimates of ENSO impacts and identify coping strategies for affected nations under the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization. If successful, that could produce the first wave of standardized climate change forecasts for affected countries.

Whether these piecemeal efforts will be enough, however, remains to be seen as temperatures are predicted to rise 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. The Asian Development Bank projects that the total cost of climate change could be as much as 6.7% of GDP in major Southeast Asian countries by that year, with regional rice yields declining by about 50 percent on average from 2020. Billions of dollars will be required for the region to adapt to climate change in the next few decades, along with bold policy shifts such as stemming illegal logging and deforestation and integrating systems for water resource management, which have seen limited progress thus far.

If these broader-based measures are not undertaken soon, drought will be only one of Southeast Asia’s long list of climate-related problems in the future.

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