Rice, Fish and El Niño: A recipe for disaster?

A family in the Papua New Guinean Highlands show IOM staff how their crops are failing due to extreme weather believed to be caused by a very strong El Niño effect. © IOM/Wonesai Sithole 2015

By Joe Lowry

Fish and rice. It’s a staple dish found on every street corner across Asia and the Pacific. From Biriyani to Kung Pao, from Kao Tom Pla to Nasi Goreng, from the underground Fijian Lovo ovens to Tandoori pots across South Asia, the region marches on a stomach filled with fish and rice.

And now, there are deep concerns about the effects that the climatic phenomenon, El Niño , will have on these two staples.

El Niño  (Spanish for ‘the child’, named after the infant Christ due to the benevolent  weather it can bring) is caused by a band of warming water in the central Pacific. It occurs regularly, and is sometimes imperceptible.

A fisherman in Jaffna, Sri Lanka prepares his catch for sale. © IOM/Joe Lowry 2013

But the El Niño  that is developing now is predicted to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest on record. It is always felt most intensely in Asia, and we are already seeing wild and erratic weather patterns.

Thailand, where I live and work, should be experiencing its regular rainy season now. Instead, the palm trees are browny-grey in many areas. Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia are also experiencing drought. Myanmar and Laos are awash with floods, and hundreds have died in heatwaves in Pakistan and India.

This is bad news on many levels. Of course agriculture will be hard hit. Without monsoon rains, rice crops suffer. A temperature rise of just one per cent reduces rice yields by one tenth. Economic forecasts for Thailand have already been lowered, and the same may soon happen in Indonesia and the Philippines.

As ocean temperatures rise, fish go deeper, or migrate. One cannot overestimate the importance of fishing to the region. In Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, fishing accounts for 55 per cent of GDP.  More diverse economies like Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam rely on fishing for employment, and for 10 per cent of their GDP.

El Niño  is not only affecting  coastal communities. An IOM assessment team is right now assessing  one of the remotest, least accessible parts of the world, the Papua New Guinean Highlands. There, the drought and frost has destroyed wide tracts of food gardens and plantations, while traditional water sources such as local streams and rivers have seen levels significantly reduced.

”Staple foods like sweet potato and other tuber crops have  been stunted in size or completely destroyed.  Families are struggling to maintain food supplies as most of their farms and gardens have already been destroyed,” reads an internal IOM memo.

The last major El Niño  in 2010 was accompanied by a 45 per cent rise in the price of food staples across much of the world. Drought is a major contributor to food shortages, but it also leads to a lack of hydropower, which supplies 100 per cent of Nepal’s energy, 70 per cent of Maynamar’s, and 30 per cent  of Cambodia’s.  Power cuts are already being seen across the region. Lack of  hydropower means more use of fossil fuels, resulting in higher prices for everything, as well as increased pollution.

There is much that can be done on a macro level, including better use of food reserves, improved water management and investment in drought-tolerant crops.

On a micro level, what people will do, when all else fails, or even before it fails, is to resort to humanity’s oldest poverty-reduction strategy. Like the fish in search of security, they will migrate.