Climate change pushing the world into hunger?
South-east Asia is the world’s rice bowl. But climate change, with its unpredictable rainfall and warming seas, is causing harvests to dwindle.
Rising sea levels are threatening rice fields. Meanwhile, the region’s growing population is placing greater stress on existing farms.
While the region has managed to rapidly reduce the number of its people who go to bed hungry, around 60.5 million of the world’s undernourished still live in Southeast Asia, according to a 2015 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The region’s food supply will come under more pressure, with its population tipped to grow from around 600 million today to almost 750 million in 2035.
In the past, the region could rely on increasing rice yields to make up the shortfall, growing more food on the area it farmed. But yields seem to have plateaued in recent decades, not just for rice but for other main crops such as wheat and maize.
In the early 1980s, the average growth of rice yields was 3.68 per cent yearly. However, by the late 1990s, the rates had significantly decreased to 0.74 per cent per year, according to a study published in 2006.
Climate change only worsens the pressures placed upon South-east Asia. With rising average global temperatures come more extreme weather phenomena such as floods and drought, which make it hard for farmers to plant their harvests properly and protect their crops.
And for a part of the world with coastlines as extensive as in Southeast Asia, the rising sea levels caused by climate change will bring even more misery.
Dr Jauhar Ali, a hybrid rice breeder from the International Rice Research Institute (Irri), said that the low-lying Mekong River Delta is being gradually inundated by seawater, which poisons crops.
“Even a few centimetres of seawater in rice fields is destructive because once a land is salinised you can’t grow anything,” said Dr Ali.
In 2014, saltwater intrusion destroyed more than 6,000ha of rice fields, according to the Southern Irrigation Research Institute. And multiple sea dykes in Vietnam’s lower Mekong region have col-
Workers harvesting rice in Thailand (above), using their sickles, before the threshing (below) and winnowing. With climate change, rising sea levels are threatening rice fields and the region’s supply of the grain will come under more pressure.