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In the Mekong Region, climate change poses real threat to food security

Climate change is resulting in severe negative impacts on many food-producing areas of the Mekong Region, posing risks of food insecurity.

Starting on 8 August, SEI and the United Nations Environment Programme will be hosting a five-week massive online open course (MOOC), Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia. This blogpost provides a preview of some of the issues to be addressed.  

Over the last decade, more intense and frequent storms, floods and droughts have damaged many key food production areas in the Mekong Region, such as the rice growing plains of central Thailand and southern Laos, and the fertile deltas of the Mekong and Red Rivers.

One estimate by FAO for the Asia-Pacific region shows that at least an additional 50 million people would soon be facing serious hunger due to climate change, and the number will climb to almost 130 million by 2050. In the Mekong Region, the damage to infrastructure and farms from the increasing frequency of natural disasters has further worsened food insecurity.

Seasonal and spatial insecurity

“Food security is not just about the numbers of people facing extreme hunger or malnourishment. We see also seasonal and spatial food security,” says Dr. Suriyan Vichitlekarn, senior regional advisor for the ASEAN Sustainable Agrifood Systems (SAS) Project, GIZ.

“This means that during certain months or seasons of the year, people may have have enough food to consume. But in other seasons, extreme weather events such as droughts or floods may affect their ability to obtain sufficient food to eat,” Suriyan explains. 

The Mekong Region has been suffering one of its worst ever-recorded droughts since 2015. Although the recent onset of the monsoon rains has provided some relief, the effects of the drought, and subsequent salinity intrusion, are still being felt in many regions such as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. This has raised fears of an extended food security crisis across the region.

Climate change is also expected to raise sea levels, which may result in a reduction of agricultural lands in some countries, as well as large changes in growing conditions for different crops, livestock and fisheries.

Climate change and water scarcity threatens Vietnam Delta

In Vietnam, for instance, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)’s Asia regional office in Hanoi has shown maps of how water scarcity and climate change may endanger key crops such as rice, cassava, maize, coffee, and cashew nuts across Vietnam. 

By March 2016, nearly a million people in central and southern Vietnam lacked fresh drinking water, according to a recent United Nations report.

Moreover, supplies of rice were at risk as salinity intrusion in the Mekong Delta destroyed at least 159,000 hectares of paddy rice and posed risks to a further 500,000 hectares.

“This year we faced the twin challenges of climate change and El Niño that contributed both to a severe drought and very high salinity intrusion [in the Mekong Delta]”, says Dr. Chu Thai Hoanh, an emeritus scientist at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

“In the Mekong Delta, the rice crop and the shrimp farms have different water needs: rice needs fresh water, while shrimp farms need saline water. But in an extreme year like 2016, with severe drought and the high saline intrusion, both rice crops and the shrimp farms were damaged. 

 “These kinds of climate risks are expected to occur more frequently in the future. We need policies to adapt to these climate trends and developmental pressures,” Dr Hoanh adds.

As the Mekong Region gears up to more frequent floods and extreme droughts, it is all the more important to deal with issues related to water access and use in order to strengthen food security.

“There is still much to be done in terms of how we use and manage water in times of both droughts and floods,” says Dr. Suriyan.

“How can we better allocate water resources for the purpose of human consumption and food production. This is an issue that closely relates to how food systems should be developed in the future and how we can better address food security in the region,” he adds.

 

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