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A map shows areas of anomalies in air temperature from standard air temperatures
A map shows areas of anomalies in air temperature from standard air temperatures. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Worries on El Niño winds

With the weather pattern known as El Niño currently stirring up the Pacific Ocean, experts are expressing concern that parts of Cambodia may soon face drought conditions that could rival the devastating effects the weather system brought nearly 20 years ago.

A cyclical changing of ocean temperatures that typically brings dry weather in the Western Pacific, El Niño was initially predicted to occur in 2014, but the weather pattern has only officially taken shape this year, with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology upgrading its El Niño-Southern Oscillation tracker on May 12.

Droughts caused by El Niño in 1997 and 1998 caused mass food shortages in Cambodia, prompting officials to call for donations to help meet a 250,000-tonne rice shortfall. While experts say it’s still too early to determine the system’s impact this year, the outlook appears troubling.

“When an El Niño occurs, they call it a coupling between the ocean and the atmosphere,” said Ian Thomas, a technical adviser with the Mekong River Commission. “Last year, it didn’t occur, [but] this year it’s happening very strongly.”

Climate forecast models by the US’s Climate Prediction Center suggest dry conditions for this part of the world during the months of May, June and July.

“At the same time, the current drought conditions as monitored by satellite in parts of Cambodia are already pretty darn bad and close to record-breaking,” Thomas said. “A very large water deficit has already built up. This really is a very bad time to start going into an even harsher drought event.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in its food security country brief for Cambodia, made no mention of El Niño or prospective drought conditions for the country or its neighbours, despite it being published on the same day the Australian BOM officially announced the event.

Rather, 2015 is forecast to yield a near “record level” for rice production in Cambodia, even though planting season for rice begins in June, just as El Niño-driven drought conditions are predicted to take effect.

“Assuming favourable weather conditions, FAO forecasts this season’s rice output at 7.2 million tonnes, up one percent from last year’s good level,” the report states. Similar forecasts were made for neighbouring countries Thailand and Laos. In Thailand, for example, the FAO noted that the “main season” rice crop, planted from May to August, was being planted under “favourable weather conditions”, suggesting good harvests in the face of a mounting El Niño.

The reality on the ground, however, is a different story. Lertwiroj Kowattana, director general of Thailand’s Royal Irrigation Department, told Reuters that water levels are “the worst in 15 years” this year, with many provinces already facing drought conditions.

Furthermore, in Vietnam, coffee farmers are reportedly facing extreme drought, threatening that country’s output for one of its most valuable crops.

The FAO in Cambodia did not respond to inquiries for a response by press time.

But without preparation, some experts warn, a similar fate could be in store for Cambodia.

“This year we are not sure what will happen . . . [But] we have already told farmers to be prepared for a drought,” said Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture.

Koma said the situation is already “very serious” in Kampong Speu, while there are some drought-like conditions in Takeo as well.

His organisation is encouraging farmers to take water-saving measures in the event of an intense dry spell. Using water vats to collect rainwater and digging small ponds are among the methods employed by small-scale farmers to help secure water supplies. “[This is] to minimise risk and to help farmers adapt to produce food. Water is most important,” he said.

Thomas warned that this year’s El Niño could potentially be worse than the one that struck Cambodia in 1997 and 1998, when late rains, combined with insects, devastated crops and left thousands short of food.

“None of it looks good. It looks very much like a classic type of El Niño, the kind we had in 1997 and 1998,” he said. “It looks like it may even be stronger than that. We’re going into it at the wrong time.”

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