Asia-Pacific Analysis: How to outsmart El Niño
- The warm weather phenomenon has already cut down Asian rice stocks
- A repeat of the 2007-2008 Asian rice price crisis looms ominously
- Investing in climate-smart agriculture and innovations is a must
“The current El Niño has caused lower harvests and irregular planting in several rice-producing countries.”
By Samarendu Mohanty, IRRI
While oceanic and atmospheric indicators suggest that the 2015-2016 El Niño has peaked and conditions are expected to return to normal by the end of second quarter of 2016, the year-long warm weather phenomenon has already affected rice production in the Asia-Pacific.
The rice-eating half of the world’s 7.4 billion people may soon see a repeat of the 2007-2008 rice price crisis when the price of the staple shot up during the El Niño event in those two years, warns Samarendu Mohanty, a social scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
“The current El Niño has caused lower harvests and irregular planting in several rice-producing countries. Combined with lower stocks in some key countries, this shows emerging patterns in regional and global grain supply that threaten a repeat of the rice price crisis in 2007-2008,” Mohanty, head of IRRI’s social sciences division, tells SciDev.Net.
The drought now hitting the region could cut rice stocks among the world's top exporters to levels not seen since 2008, and fuel a price crisis like what happened in 2007-2008.
"If we have a bad monsoon at the tail-end of El Niño, with drought still persisting in many parts of Asia, the risk significantly increases in terms of price response,” Mohanty explains.
Rice stocks of top rice exporters — India, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and the United States — are likely to drop drastically by the second half of 2016, from a peak of nearly 41 million tonnes in 2013, which could result in panic buying.
Mohanty urges that joint action is needed among countries, especially the ASEAN+3 and India, in recognition of shared responsibility as well as shared investments and a regional trade outlook. The ASEAN+3 includes the ten ASEAN member countries plus China, Japan and South Korea.
For the long term, he suggests that the ASEAN+3 and India invest in the ASEAN Rice Breeding Initiative (ARBI) and the Agriculture Innovations and R&D Fund (AIRDF).
ARBI is a region-wide programme of scientific work and capacity-building that will enable the entire region to "build a new generation of ASEAN rice scientists".
Drought in South America
Meanwhile, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reports that the warm weather phenomenon has also brought drought to Central America, seriously affecting agricultural and livestock production and threatening the food security of 2.5 million people. 
IFPRI estimates that El Salvador has lost 64 per cent of maize area planted and 82 per cent of bean area. In Honduras, the estimated loss is 94 per cent of maize area and 97 per cent of the bean area. In Guatemala, the estimated losses were between 75 and 100 per cent of the first harvest for subsistence farmers in the eastern and western part of the dry corridor.
The dry corridor spans the lowlands of the Pacific coastal area and most of the central region of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guanacaste in Costa Rica and Panama’s Arco Seco area.
El Niño in South Africa
El Niño also has caused a drop in crop production in southern Africa, according to FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization). Reduced agricultural output this year on top of last year's disappointing season could affect the food security situation in 2016, FAO warns. 
The season for planting maize in southern Africa has already experienced delays, while crops already sown may wither due to inadequate rains and higher temperatures.
FAO had warned earlier that the current El Niño would be strong — and it now appears to be the strongest episode in 18 years. It was forecast to peak at the start of 2016, before the usual harvest time for farmers in southern Africa.
To address the problems posed by the warm weather phenomenon, FAO has been promoting climate-smart agriculture. This includes promoting appropriate crops and livestock.
Government and private interventions include support to farmers by providing drought tolerant crops, seeds and livestock feed and carrying out vaccinations. Other interventions include longer-term help to vulnerable groups, including the rehabilitation of irrigation systems and improving farmers' access to rural finance, FAO says.
Innovative interventions in southern Africa in recent years have included non-conditional cash transfers and vouchers and adoption of climate-smart technologies for both livestock and crop production systems, FAO adds.
Climatologists are still debating whether this is the biggest El Niño on record. But they are in accord that three “super El Niños” have wreaked havoc to food crops in those three decades they occurred — in 1982-83, 1997-98, and now in 2015-16.
Are super El Niños related to climate change? Scientists are not sure at this point, but the current El Niño started during the hottest year in history.
Governments must now take pro-active steps to ward off the disastrous effects of this warm weather phenomenon as it occurs more often. Scientists should continue to develop crop plants that are weather proof — for example, rice varieties that can survive drought and flood-water varieties that can thrive when La Niña comes which is expected to follow in the last quarter of the year.
Governments have to build more dams and pass and implement laws mandating industries, communities and private homes to build deep wells and water catchments to store water during the rainy season and to irrigate crops in the dry season.
Governments must now push climate-smart agriculture. This is farming that, among others, increase agricultural productivity in an environmentally sound manner and train farming households to adapt to climate change by growing drought-tolerant crops, conserving soils, rainwater, forest and water resources.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.
1. The Crop Site El Niño: Effects on 2015 Grain Production (25 Sept. 2015)
2. World Grain Staff El Niño lowers early production outlook in southern Africa (World-Grain.com, 22 Dec. 2015)
3. Crispin Maslog Asia-Pacific Analysis: Climate change and agriculture (SciDev.Net, 31 Jan. 2016)