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Crops suffer as drought hits Asia-Pacific

By Karl Wilson in Sydney | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-12 09:38
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Dried land and river at South Tangerang, in Tangerang, Indonesia, on July 25, 2019 from long dried season that hit most area in Indonesia. [Photo/VCG]

Australia has been forced to import wheat for the first time in 12 years

Australia, one of the world's biggest wheat-exporting nations, has been forced to import the grain for the first time in 12 years as drought across the country's eastern states slashes production.

Throughout much of Asia, drought is becoming the norm rather than the exception. This year alone, according to data from the Manila-based Asia Development Bank, drought has been severe in Laos, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam while Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar have all seen moderate drought.

The Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang and which cuts through five countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has seen water levels drop dramatically. In northeastern Thailand, the river is at its lowest level in 100 years.

On July 25, Indonesia's National Agency for Disaster Management announced that 55 districts and cities have declared drought emergency readiness status.

The drought in Australia has seen the nation's overall farm production in the 2018-19 financial year fall to A$58 billion ($39.5 billion), from A$63.8 billion two years ago, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

A spokesperson for the Export Council of Australia said that Australia's export earnings from agriculture are set to fall 4.5 percent over the 2019-20 financial year as weaker production, stemming from the drought in eastern states, more than offsets the broad pickup in global prices.

"Agriculture is Australia's third-largest export earner, behind hard commodities and services. In particular, drought has impacted heavily on wheat production and will likely cause a 22 percent fall in export earnings over the 2018-19 financial year," the spokesperson said.

Thailand, meanwhile, is suffering from its worst drought in more than a decade. It threatens this year's rice production in the world's second-biggest rice exporting nation.

Vast areas in Thailand's north and northeastern provinces, where much of the country's rice is grown, are now declared drought areas as rivers and dams dry up.

Just how serious the drought has become was evident this week as thousands of people flocked to see the re-emerged remains of a Buddhist temple in central Thailand. The temple was submerged 20 years ago during construction of a dam.

Today the dam is at 3 percent capacity, according to Reuters. The dam, with capacity of 960 million cubic meters, normally irrigates more than 526,000 hectares of farmland in four provinces, but drought has cut that to just 1,214 hectares in the single province of Lopburi.

The Thai government has asked farmers to delay planting rice because of drought and because the pumping of water from reservoirs for irrigation threatens household supplies, according to the agriculture ministry.

The story is much the same for most of Southeast Asia. Drought in the region has been exacerbated by the El Nino weather effect, which has been more severe than in previous years. El Nino is the warm phase of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific.

"The impact of the drought has prevented rice from being planted in some Southeast Asian farming regions, which will reduce rice crop output this year," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for global consultancy IHS Markit.

He said Indonesia is also suffering from the effects of protracted dry weather conditions, with the Indonesian government expecting that this could lower rice production during the second half of this year.

A joint study by ASEAN and ESCAP, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, warned that drought could lead to conflict in the future.

Released on April 19, the study's report, Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in Southeast Asia, said the cumulative impact of drought in the region impacts disproportionately on the poor, heightening inequality.

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