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Get ready for future crisis in food production in Southeast Asia

  • Goh Tian and Jonatan A Lassa

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore | Sat, January 17, 2015 | 10:40 am

Apart from the recent storms and typhoons that have ravaged Southeast Asian agriculture and food production since Cyclone Nargis in 2008, it is hard to envisage the climate extremes that affect Southeast Asia, where 30 percent all world rice is produced.

The region is home to two of the world'€™s largest rice exporters, Thailand and Vietnam, which account for slightly more than half of world rice exports. Indonesia and the Philippines also produce significant amounts for domestic consumption, but very little leaves their borders.

We argue that one perfect story about the collapse of a food industry as a result of climate extremes is the story of an Australian rice-production center, the Riverina region of southern New South Wales.

First introduced in the mid 1920s and rapidly developed in the 1950s and 1960s, the Australian rice industry had grown to become a very profitable industry.

The Ricegrowers'€™ Association of Australia used to report that it produced more than one million tons of rice and exported it to more than 70 countries, recording export revenues of about US$500-600 million annually from the late 1980s to 2001.

However, in 2007-2008, Australia'€™s rice production fell from an annual average of 1.3 million tons to a mere 19,000 tons. Persistent drought since 2003 had pushed the industry close to oblivion.

The recent return of rainfall has helped the Australian rice industry to bounce back to the level of the late 1970s and 1980s. The Riverina rice crisis did not have a huge impact on Australian food security, because of the country'€™s resilient economy.

In addition, unlike in Asia, where it is a daily staple, rice is an export commodity in Australia. The situation in Riverina exemplifies the fact that once rice plants reach their heat limits as a result of heat stress caused by variation and changes in climate, even the best adaptation measures and technology will fail.

The Southeast Asian region is experiencing an increase in food losses as a result of climate extremes. The Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year, while about six to nine typhoons make landfall every year in both the Mekong River Delta and Red River Delta in Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian food system is potentially vulnerable to future climate extremes.

Very recently, at the end of 2014, typhoon Hagupit slammed into the Philippines, causing damage to crops in the Samar provinces.

In 2013, the devastating Typhoon Haiyan destroyed fish in protected areas, uprooted coconut trees and inundated paddy fields in the Philippines. It is estimated that Haiyan destroyed 170,000 tons of rice ready for harvest. Besides the reduction in food production, the typhoon also caused loss of livelihoods and food stocks.

The Thailand floods in 2011 caused a total rice loss of about 700,000 ha '€” equivalent to an at least $500 million loss in revenue. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis caused flooding in 24 percent of Myanmar'€™s rice-growing area. Anecdote suggests that Cyclone Nargis 2008 killed 50 to 75 percent of livestock in most of the affected regions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that there is an increasing tendency for more frequent and intense extreme weather events in Asia.

Such events could reduce rice production and cause international rice prices to spiral upwards. Moreover, not all the climate extremes will come as sudden extreme weather events; most of them will be creeping hazards, as seen in the case of rice in the Riverina region.

Researchers have predicted a reduction in crop yields throughout Southeast Asia because of changes in temperature, precipitation and sea levels.

Furthermore, the exposure of crops to typhoons and potential drought in Southeast Asia cannot be prevented.

Without smart and anticipatory adaptation, Vietnam'€™s rice production could be reduced by 3 million tons, 10 times Singapore'€™s annual imports, in the coming decades as a result of the flooding of paddy fields. Climate-impact studies project that large parts of the Mekong River Delta, where rice is grown by farmers in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, may be inundated by the rise in sea levels.

Higher magnitude and frequency of floods is a serious issue for the vulnerable irrigation infrastructure in Indonesia. Most of the irrigation and water-supply infrastructure in the country has been built without calculating climate-change factors. It is time to re-evaluate agricultural infrastructure in light of climate change.

Changes in precipitation and temperature could also affect post-harvest crop-handling, storage and transportation.

In many parts of the region, farmers still experience post-harvesting losses because of the lack of suitable technology for the drying process, which is highly dependent on the climate and weather.

The Southeast Asian food system is potentially vulnerable to future climate extremes. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of systematic efforts to invest in climate-smart agriculture. Fostering political ambition to build climate-resilient food systems is necessary.

Securing food and building a resilient food system is not only about disaster response. There is a need to broaden the scope of adaptation policies.

First, adaptation policies should be expanded to include both secondary crops as well as tertiary food commodities. Until very recently, most governments'€™ agricultural policies tended to ignore the impact of climate change on non-rice commodities.

Second, adaptation policies should include post-harvesting technology, food stocks and access, instead of merely food production.

Third, Southeast Asian governments need to recognize the value of anticipatory adaptation strategies and policies to pre-empt the impact of climate change on food security.

This will provide the commitment required to include climate adaptation in national development strategies.

ASEAN needs to boldly commit to developing climate-smart agriculture by adopting flood-resistant genotypes of rice and more resilient irrigation technologies. Governments in the region should also work together to conduct local climate-impact assessments on primary and secondary crops in key production regions.

This will provide the scientific studies needed to transform policymaking into anticipatory adaptation measures.

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Jonatan A. Lassa is a research fellow and Goh Tian an associate research fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS) at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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