El Niño, Poor Water Management, and Climate Change Bringing Droughts to Asia and the Pacific

Article | 14 June 2016

Seasonal dry periods across the region have worsened for a variety of reasons but many countries are finding solutions.

Farmers in western Guizhou province in the People's Republic of China wake up early every morning to help dig wells 100 feet deep, hoping there will be enough water to maintain crops. Nearby lake levels are decreasing and there used to be water close to the surface, they say.

Ironically, just a few kilometers downhill is a car wash where a man with a gushing hose assures visitors that water supply is not a problem.

There are similar situations in countries throughout Asia and the Pacific. Droughts and water scarcity has been experienced throughout the region due in part to seasonal dry periods being exacerbated by the El Niño weather phenomenon, climate change and water management problems.

"Ignoring El Niño is not an option for countries in Asia."

El Niño, a periodic weather event characterized by warming ocean temperatures, has been particularly strong in recent years, according to climate scientists.

"While the effects of El Niño are global and widespread, it hits Asian countries the hardest," notes Ancha Srinivasanivasan, a Principal Climate Change Specialist at the Asian Development Bank. "Drought becomes a more common occurrence, leading to energy, food and water insecurity."

The impact of climate change on the region is making the problem worse, according to the Asian Development Bank study Global Increase in Climate-Related Disasters, which examined four decades of climate-related events.

Regional impact

The impact of El Niño and droughts is being felt throughout the region. In the Pacific, El Niño-induced droughts that have caused significant losses in agricultural production and depleted fresh water supplies, according to the Asian Development Bank’s Pacific Economic Monitor. The Marshall Islands has been particularly hard hit with the country’s entire population of about 50,000 people affected and a state of disaster declared.

In Indonesia, El Niño events have brought on prolonged drought and damage to food and cash crop production. This contributes to higher inflation, increases in poverty, weak exports, and can have adverse effects on political stability, according to an analysis of the impacts.

In the People’s Republic of China, drought has been a recurring problem despite government efforts to address the issue. The 2011 drought, which affected the Yangtze River, left 3.5 million people with minimal drinking water. The 2009 drought affected 60 million people and compromised 6.5 million hectares of land. Between 2004 and 2007, droughts cost the People’s Republic of China an estimated $8 billion in annual direct economic losses.

Drought management solutions

Many countries in Asia and the Pacific have come up with strategies and solutions to address the worsening droughts they are facing. In Cambodia, Viet Nam and Lao People’s Democratic Republic, irrigation systems are being improved and early warning systems set up.

In the People’s Republic of China, improved water management policies and disaster preparedness programs are being put into place. "The country's traditional approach of building more infrastructure is not enough to fill the widening gap between water supply and demand," notes Qingfeng Zhang, a Water Resources Specialist at ADB.

In Sri Lanka, water is being moved from the Mahaweli river basin, where it is plentiful, to areas where scarce water supplies undermine agricultural output and household incomes. In Uzbekistan, agricultural practices are being improved and water is being shared regionally in order to address scarcity and droughts.

Increasingly, people throughout Asia and the Pacific are recognizing that droughts will require extraordinary actions and policies, says ADB Principal Climate Change Specialist Ancha Srinivasan.

"El Niño is clearly no ordinary weather event," he says. "It demonstrates the interconnectedness of the earth's climate, economics, and vulnerability. Ignoring El Niño is not an option for countries in Asia."