Asia readies food security defenses against El Niño threat
Asia's governments are scrambling to head off the potential impact of a weather phenomenon that in the past has driven food prices to levels that sparked social unrest.
With lessons learned, Indonesia's government is handing out calendars to farmers setting out early planting dates. Malaysia and the Philippines are working to manage water supplies and India has bolstered its food stockpiles.
Drought linked to a 2007 El Niño sparked a surge in food prices, including a trebling in the cost of rice to a record over $1,000 a tonne in 2008 that sparked riots in countries as far afield as Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti. The last El Niño in 2009 brought the worst drought in nearly four decades to India, cutting rice output in the world's number two producer by 10 million tonnes and boosting global sugar prices to the highest in nearly 30 years.
A majority of weather forecasting models indicate an El Niño is likely to develop around the middle of the year, according to the U.N. weather agency.
"Certainly for rice because of a combination of two things: it's their production most likely to be affected, and they're importers so would have to go onto a world market with potentially rising prices."
The government said it has begun cloud seeding and the release of drought-tolerant varieties of rice.
"We are putting in place policy initiatives, water management and conservation measures, as well as modern and innovative farming and fishery technologies to somehow soften the effects of this dry weather," Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said.
Strong typhoons often follow an El Niño weather event in the Philippines, which could mean further crop losses, said Mary Ann Lucille Sering, Secretary of the Philippine Climate Change Commission.
"Rice imports will be an option for us," Sering said. The country is already the region's number two rice importer after China.
In Indonesia the agriculture ministry has instructed farming advisors, paid by the government to assist farmers with modern techniques, to bring forward planting of certain crops.