El Nino’s Effects in Asia Point to New Tactics to Adapt to Climate Change

Southeast Asia may well bear the brunt of the current, larger-than-normal El Nino – and these near-term impacts underscore the need to establish long-term goals for developing more climate-smart agriculture, say CIP experts and others.El Nino Potato


In the near term, it’s too soon to know conclusively where El Nino’s impacts will be felt most acutely across the region. “We have a few more weeks to go,” at least through January, says Dr. Wassila Thiaw, team lead for the international desks at the National Centers for Environmental Predictions’ Climate Prediction Center, Rockville, Md. “I can tell you for now it is one of the strongest such events in historic records” that date to 1950.


While some rice-producing countries across Asia are now in offensive mode by putting in place multicropping and other safeguards, others are at a strong disadvantage, operating against a backdrop of an already historically low yield.


In some regions, “the rice harvest is the lowest it’s been in nine years,” says Julian Parr, director of CIP’s Asia office. Coupled with that is the continent’s high rate of malnutrition, the highest in the world, Parr adds. In India alone, some 48 percent of children exhibit symptoms of malnourishment-driven growth stunting. During this El Nino and beyond, it’s essential to think past mere food security to nutrition security, Parr contends.


Potato and sweetpotato may serve as a bulwark against El Nino-related effects, as well as those related to long-term climate change.  In late 2013, two cyclones struck India and the Philippines; in their wake, sweetpotato and other root and tuber crops displayed more resilience than did wheat and rice.


A new report from the Asian Development Bank concedes that economic losses from the effects of climate change across Southeast Asia could be as much as 60 percent higher than figures calculated in a similar report ADB published in 2009.


Across Asia, each country’s strategy to meet near-term challenges like this El Nino as well as more long-term challenges is affected by a range of meteorological, cultural, economic and political factors. Consider the wildfires that have raged across tinder-dry Indonesia this autumn, or predictions that the city of Bangkok – capital of the world’s largest rice exporter, Thailand, with nine millions tons exported in 2010 – could be submerged within a couple of decades.


Professor Linda Yarr lauds the government of Vietnam for doing “a great deal to inform its public about climate change,” including promoting ways for smallholders to adapt their farming practices.  


 “As a country that has undergone a rapid transition to navigating the global economy, industrialization and urbanization, Vietnam is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change,” says Yarr, director of partnerships for International Strategies in Asia (PISA), at George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies.


Through the current El Nino event, countries from Bangladesh to the Philippines are liable to feel the effects of smaller-than-usual – or, conversely, larger than usual – amounts of rainfall during the phenomenon formally known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation: a periodic cycle of increases and decreases in sea surface temperatures over the eastern Pacific Ocean. The number and intensity of storms also stand to behave in different ways this time around.


While forecasters are using past El Nino events (and their inverse – La Nina, in which ocean surface temperatures drop) as a guide to estimate how the current one will play out, quirks can and do occur. During the powerful El Nino of 1997-1998, a very wet January 1998 surprised forecasters expecting a typically dry month in southern Africa, says Dr. Thiaw.


“That [wet month] was an outlier,” he says. “We think it was more due to local conditions. While patterns of precipitation vary month over month, this part of Africa has tended to be dry during El Nino events.”


Parr contends that the region mostly likely to be affected by a rise in global temperature of a single degree will be central Asia. Such a rise by the year 2040 would have severe effects on rice and wheat yields, due in part to these crops’ high water demand. Multiple varieties of both potato and sweetpotato, on the other hand, exhibit both drought tolerance and the ability to thrive in highly salinated soil.


Whether smallholders in Asia seek to respond to a drier-than-usual El Nino cycle this year, or to rotate crops over the next ten years to diversify harvests and replenish soils, potato and sweetpotato “are a good climate-proofing tool, compared to water-hungry rice and wheat,” Parr says.

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