TEMERLOH (Pahang) • Withering drought and sizzling temperatures from El Nino have caused food and water shortages and ravaged farming across Asia, and experts warn of a double whammy of possible flooding from its sibling La Nina.
The current El Nino, which began last year, has been one of the strongest ever, leaving the Mekong River at its lowest level in decades, causing food-related unrest in the Philippines, and smothering vast regions in a months-long heatwave, often topping 40 deg C. Economic losses in South-east Asia could top US$10 billion (S$13.4 billion), said IHS Global Insight.
The regional dry weather is expected to break by mid-year but fears are growing that an equally forceful La Nina will follow. That could bring heavy rain to an already flood-prone region, exacerbating agricultural damage and leaving crops vulnerable to disease and pests.
"The situation could become even worse if a La Nina event - which often follows an El Nino - strikes towards the end of this year," Mr Stephen O'Brien, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and relief, said this week. He said El Nino has already left 60 million people worldwide requiring "urgent assistance", particularly in Africa.
Ms Wilhemina Pelegrina, a Greenpeace campaigner on agriculture, said La Nina could be "devastating" for Asia, bringing possible "flooding and landslides which can impact on food production".
WORSE TO COME
The situation could become even worse if a La Nina event - which often follows an El Nino - strikes towards the end of this year.
MR STEPHEN O'BRIEN, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and relief, on worsening weather.
El Nino is triggered by periodic oceanic warming in the eastern Pacific Ocean which can trigger drought in some regions and heavy rain in others.
Much of Asia has been punished by a bone-dry heatwave marked by record-high temperatures, threatening the livelihoods of countless millions. Vietnam, one of the world's top rice exporters, has been particularly hard hit by its worst drought in a century.
In the economically vital Mekong Delta bread basket, the mighty river's vastly reduced flow has left up to 50 per cent of arable land affected by salt-water intrusion that harms crops and can damage farmland, said Dr Le Anh Tuan, a professor of climate change at Can Tho University.
More than 500,000 people are short of drinking water, while hotels, schools and hospitals are struggling to maintain clean water supplies.
Neighbouring Thailand and Cambodia also are suffering, with vast areas short of water and Thai rice output curbed. In Malaysia, the extreme weather has shrunk reservoirs, dried up agricultural lands, forced water rationing in some areas and caused repeated school closures as a health precaution.
Fisherman Abdul Rafar Matarrh said his catch in central Malaysia's Pahang River has been decimated as the normally broad river has shrunk to a third its normal size.
"Last year, I could catch about 20kg of fish a day. Now, to get one kilogramme is very hard," said Mr Abdul Rafar, 80, after netting just one small fish in an entire morning.
In India, about 330 million people are at risk from water shortage and crop damage, the government said recently, and blazing temperatures have been blamed for scores of heatstroke deaths and dead livestock.