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Southeast Asia Should Brace for More ‘Extreme’ Drought, Study Says

Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam are particularly at risk.

by Mustika Hapsoro
25 April 2019, 10:09am

A family walk over the cracked soil of a dried up fishery at Novaleta, the Philippines, in 2015. Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

Over the past 30 years, droughts have affected over 66 million people in the Southeast Asian region and according to recent reports, it's only going to get much worse from here.

A new study conducted by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and ASEAN revealed that drought will become intensified and even more extreme if countries do not take steps to reduce its impact.

“More dry years are inevitable, but more suffering is not. Timely interventions now can reduce the impacts of drought, protect the poorest communities and foster more harmonious societies,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Armida Alisjahbana, as quoted by South China Morning Post.

The study, titled “Ready for the Dry Years: Building resilience to drought in Southeast Asia,” was conducted to focus particularly "in the low capacity and high-risk countries"—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

As revealed in the report, drought is often overlooked and receive less attention from policymakers compared to other natural disasters. They are often seen as a local problem and occur over a long time period. Because it's underreported, and due to its slow onset, a lot of people fail to realize that its impacts, in the long run, can be disastrous.

Countries that rely on agriculture for primary employment will suffer tremendously. Not only will food supplies be reduced, but people from failing agricultural lands will also be forced to leave, causing mass migration, often to urban coastal areas, to look for new opportunities.

The report also points out that droughts will create "fertile ground for conflict." Natural disasters, and particularly drought, will lead to environmental degradation, which can provoke conflict over access to resources and land.

In previous years, 80 percent of local conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region have occurred in areas that were affected by drought. Although drought isn’t the sole factor for conflict, the report shows that there is a “powerful reciprocal relationship between armed conflict and local drought, whereby each phenomenon makes a group more vulnerable to the other."

Currently, drought-affected areas of Southeast Asia are largely concentrated in the north and south of Vietnam, southern Sulawesi and Borneo, and the central part of Java, Sulawesi and Papua. The study found that ongoing climate change will likely shift and extend to other areas. It predicts that between 2071 and 2100, 96 percent of the ASEAN region will likely be affected by drought.

The study concludes with three plans proposed by ESCAP and ASEAN for governments to implement. The plans include strengthening drought risk assessment and early warning services, cultivating drought-risk financing markets, and helping people and businesses adapt better to drought.

While drought is inevitable, we can only hope countries will come up with solutions before it’s too late.