In the last year or so, the El Niño phenomenon has been affecting Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia at record levels. Not since the ’97-’98 El Niño have drought conditions been this severe, and that was one of the worst years on record.
El Niño is a periodic warming of surface water in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. This above average temperature causes atmospheric changes across the globe, affecting each region in different ways. Southeast Asia, and Thailand specifically, tends to experience drier rainfall conditions during the typical monsoon months (June – October). This change tends to affect the Southern and Eastern parts of the country the most, which grossly affects the production of crops, such as rice, and the water supply. Last month, the Government of Thailand reported that 46 districts and 12 provinces had been declared “drought-affected” areas, and were eligible for aid relief. As El Niño conditions continue to threaten farmers, the agriculture industry, and the people of Thailand, environmental organizations are reporting that La Niña is likely to be coming later this year.
La Niña is the counter-phenomenon to El Niño. A La Niña period is met with cooling surface temperatures in the Pacific, and therefore cooler, wetter conditions in the normally drought-stricken regions. This year has already seen cooler temperatures and rainfall that Thailand hasn’t seen in years, however, El Niño continues to negatively affect the country. According to NOAA [National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (U.S.)] El Niño is still prevalent, but signs of cooling are already being recorded, and they expect a La Nina period to take over in the late-summer or early fall.
Despite a semblance of hope for later this year, the late entrance of La Niña doesn’t bode well for Thailand’s agriculture in 2016, meaning another poor crop production year will negatively affect a lot of people.
El Niño, La Niña, and other weather phenomena aren’t just changing weather conditions, they’re changing regional climates. For at least the last 10-15 years, desertification has been a major concern across Asia. Desertification is what happens when tropical or fertile land becomes desert as a result of drought and deforestation. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Deforestation, “Asia, in terms of the number of people affected by desertification and drought, is the most severely affected continent. To be fully effective, activities to combat desertification and drought need to be carefully tailored to the particular circumstances and needs of each country.” China has made efforts to restore their forests with a tree-planting initiative which has been active for decades, but Thailand’s water conservation efforts haven’t been up to par with that initiative. Moving forward, Thailand will need to start making stronger efforts to combat the very possible desertification of the entire region.