Asian drought triggers surge in poverty


But help is on the way

Los Baños, Philippines – The drought that is desiccating and devastating much of Asia this year will not only cost the region hundreds of millions of dollars in lost agricultural production but will also drive millions of people into poverty.

New research on the impact of drought in rural India has shown that total farm household income can drop by 40 to 80 percent in drought years relative to normal years. A drought in 2002-03 in the three eastern Indian states of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa pushed another 13 million people below the poverty line.

The research - funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and conducted by scientists at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as well as partners in India - is one of the first major efforts to fully understand the economic impact of drought in Asia, especially in relation to rice. The research results also come as much of Asia is gripped by a severe drought that is devastating rice crops and agricultural production.

Farmers using traditional irrigation methods can use up to 3,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of rice. This is one of the main reasons why 90 percent of the water diverted for human use in Asia goes to agriculture.

In mid-March, media reports said that Thai authorities confirmed that 63 of the country's 76 provinces had been hit by drought, resulting in damage to crops on an estimated 809,000 hectares of land at a cost of over US$190 million.

Currently, about 60 percent of Thailand's 63.8 million people depend on farm income for their livelihood and it's the same story across Asia, where agriculture is vital to the livelihoods of well over half the region's residents.

In China, media reports say that the normally lush tropical southern island of Hainan is suffering its worst drought in 50 years, with the affected areas covering some 12 million hectares of farmland. Over nine million people are also said to be facing drinking-water shortages in China.

Reports from Vietnam say that eight central highland provinces are suffering their worst drought in 28 years, affecting about 1 million people and causing an estimated $80 million worth of crop losses. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this year called for international assistance for a national campaign to help farmers who are short of water.

In times of drought, not only do these farmers and farm laborers have less food to eat and reduced income, but many fall into debt. Forced to sell what few assets they own, they become sentenced to additional years of hardship. The worst-affected may have no choice but to migrate, losing almost everything in the process and placing huge strains on their society.

Despite such huge economic and social costs, research to help Asia's farmers overcome the age-old problem of drought remains relatively underfunded. For example, the total expenditure on agricultural research (not just on drought research) has been very small relative to the economic cost of drought, which is estimated in IRRI research to be $440 million per year in eastern India alone.

"Almost every Asian nation is not spending what it could – or what is effective – on public agricultural or rice research, especially in such crucially important areas as drought," IRRI Director General Robert S. Zeigler says. "This is despite the fact that rice and agriculture are absolutely fundamental to the Asian economy and that Asia's rice growers are some of the most technologically deprived farmers in the world."

However, Dr. Zeigler stresses that there is some hope amid such gloom.

"Despite a need for more financial support, public rice research in Asia is developing a range of exciting new technologies and strategies to help poor farmers combat drought," he explained. "What we need to do now is make sure these technologies get fully developed and reach the farmers who need them so they will have a better chance of avoiding the poverty and hardship drought can so easily cause."

The new technologies to help Asia's rice farmers combat drought can be divided into two main categories:

New rice varieties that are better adapted to – and perform well in - dry conditions.

A better scientific understanding of how a rice plant tolerates drought is allowing rice breeders to develop drought-tolerant varieties. IRRI research has already identified several varieties with high tolerance of water stress. These "donors" are being used to develop improved versions of popular high-quality varieties with significantly improved performance under severely dry conditions. IRRI and its research partners in India and other countries are working together to confirm the improved performance of these new varieties in farmers' fields. Researchers are also working to find and "tag" genes that confer improved drought tolerance, allowing them to be used to produce drought-hardy versions of other popular varieties.

New irrigation water management, soil fertility and weed management strategies

Resource and crop management options being studied as part of IRRI's drought work include improving rice-planting methods, increasing moisture availability, applying nutrients more efficiently and improving weed control. Water availability for critical supplemental irrigation can also be improved through small on-farm water reservoirs that capture rainwater.

"What we are doing now is integrating all these various components into simple, easy-to-adopt technology packages for farmers," Dr. Zeigler says. "Of course, droughts will still be with us, but we hope to help farmers adapt successfully so that droughts will make as little difference to them as the sun rising or setting."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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