South East Asia — Great swaths of South-East and East Asia are suffering from their worst dry-season drought in decades, and the monsoon is still months away. Worse still, the seasonal rains might be postponed by the El Nino phenomenon, experts said. El Nino, a warming of Pacific Ocean waters that results in changing weather patterns, cannot be blamed for the current drought, but it might affect the coming monsoon season, which starts in May or June and on which Asia’s main rice crop depends.
“The summer will be a bit longer and the rainfall a bit less not only in Thailand but in Indonesia and northern Australia,” predicted Smith Dharmasaroja, director of Thailand’s Disaster Warning Foundation.
Smith said the current drought had nothing to do with El Nino but should rather be blamed on unusually low rainfall in southern China and South-East Asia since September, leaving the region hot and dry.
Whether this unusual weather pattern was yet another example of global warming was still unknown, scientists said.
“There is a theory that there was more moisture in the equatorial area this winter, which meant the upper regions got less, but that is pretty much hypothesis,” said Anond Snidvongsa, director of the South-East Asia START Regional Centre, which monitors climate change.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the region is unusually dry this year.
The Mekong River – South-East Asia’s longest waterway, which threads through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – is at its lowest level in 50 years.
Although four Chinese dams on the upper level of the river might be partly to blame, the unseasonally dry weather is obviously the main factor.
Chinese officials said the drought in the five regions of the country’s south-west is the worst in at least 60 years.
It has left at least 15 million people short of water and damaged 4 million hectares of farmland in the Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Chongqing and Sichuan regions.
In Yunnan province, the water flow in the upper Mekong – known as the Lancang in China – had fallen to about 250 cubic metres per second late last month, half of February’s average flow.
Elephants at the Wild Elephant Valley in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna district, which borders Myanmar, have fled into nearby forests to find water, Li Fuming, a worker at the park, told state media.
A forest fire destroyed at least 93 hectares of vegetation in Guangxi’s Longlin county last week while the risk of more fires prompted Yunnan to recruit an extra 16,000 forest wardens last month, the official China Daily said.
Laos’ capital, Vientiane, which lies on the banks of the Mekong, is suffering from water shortages for irrigation and drinking.
The unusually arid conditions have sparked other forest fires in northern Thailand, blanketing popular tourist cities such as Chiang Mai in a haze of smoke.
In northern Vietnam, forest fires have already destroyed 1,600 hectares of forest so far this year, more than all the damage sustained by the forest in the years 2008 and 2009 combined, said Do Thanh Hai, a senior official at Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department.
Hai blamed the fires on the drought, which left Vietnam’s north-western provinces with almost no rain from October to February.
“Such a long-lasting drought is somewhat strange,” Hai said. “Dry weather and high temperatures are coinciding with the time when farmers burn their fields to prepare for cultivation, which creates a serious risk of forest fires.”
In January, the Red River in Hanoi was measured at its lowest level in more than 100 years.
The dry-season drought has also hit Malaysia and Singapore.
Dams in Malaysia’s north-eastern state of Kelantan are at what are described as seriously low levels because of the lack of rain. Losses to the rice harvest in the state, one of the country’s main producers, could run to 15.75 million dollars.
Singapore’s National Environment Agency recorded a total rainfall of 6.3 millimetres in February at the climate station in the eastern district of Changi, establishing “a new record for the driest month in Singapore” since records began 140 years ago.
The previous records for the driest February and driest month with 8.4 millimetres was set in February 1968 and February 2005, the agency said.
The Philippines is also suffering from this year’s drought although not as much as the country did from 1997 to 1998.
So far, the drought has affected 37 of the Philippines’ 80 provinces and caused more than 108 million dollars in losses in agriculture because of a decrease in yields, wilting, stunted growth and livestock deaths.
The dry spell has also caused the water levels in many dams to drop to near-critical levels and triggered a power crisis in the southern region of Mindanao, which relies on hydropower plants for more than 50 per cent of its electricity.