Cli­mate change push­ing the world into hunger?

The Straits Times - - FRONT PAGE - Jose Hong

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.

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