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Drought Dries Up Crops, Forces Water Rationing in Asia - 2002-05-16

Asia faces one of the worst droughts the region has seen in decades. From North Korea to Australia, crops are drying up and cities are rationing water. While governments are adding up the costs, scientists are trying to find the drought's origins.

To conserve its dwindling water supplies, Taiwan has shut down swimming pools and car washes, and now is turning off taps in homes. The drought has even hit the island's stock market. Its main stock index fell almost four-percent a few weeks ago on fears that the high-technology industry would not get the water it needs. The government had to step in and pledge that water will continue to flow to computer-chip factories.

Taiwan is not alone in worrying about water.

Hong Kong and New Delhi have experienced record warm weather this year. Shenzhen, China, across the border from Hong Kong, reports that its reservoir levels are half of what is normal for this time of year. Hebei province faces a fifth dry season in a row.

Wildfires have swept Malaysia and one of the country's largest crops, palm oil, is seeing production fall. Half of Indonesia's 30 provinces will face a water crisis by September, if rainfall does not pick up soon. Australia's wheat crop, a primary source of grain for Asia, may shrink, and that could raise grain prices all over the region.

While governments are imposing rationing and assessing the economic damage, scientists have said this latest drought could be a sign of an El Nino. The weather condition is caused by rising sea temperatures, which interact with the atmosphere, causing abnormal weather. In El Nino years, droughts often hit normally wet areas, and floods soak normally arid plains.

The Australian Weather Bureau reports that there is a 60 percent chance that it is an El Nino year. At the City University of Hong Kong, Professor Johnny Chan, who specializes in weather conditions, is not so sure.

"Some of the signals from the ocean, do suggest that we may be entering a phase of El Nino. But at the same time ... the other indicators in the atmosphere that have been related to the occurrence of El Nino have not shown up in the data," Professor Chan said.

If there is an El Nino, it could be especially hard for the developing countries of Southeast Asia.

In 1997, an El Nino drought ruined Indonesia's rice crop and helped spread fires that swept through the country's rain forest. The fires blanketed much of Southeast Asia with smoke, hurting tourism and leaving city dwellers in Kuala Lampur and Singapore choking. That year, Hong Kong saw record rainfalls, which hurt the city's vital tourism trade.

Some experts fear this latest drought is a sign of global warming. Many scientists think the use of fossil fuels builds up so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and that warms the Earth.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change thinks the pattern of frequent droughts in Asia in the past two decades is the result of modern industrialization. Professor Rajendra K. Pachauri is chairman of the panel. "El Nino is getting disrupted by proven climate changes we see in different parts of the world. Drought affects not only agriculture, but it does result in downward pressure on economic growth. So there is an economic cost to be paid because of the natural phenomenon, which have been affected by human actions," he said.

Professor Pachauri said weather phenomena such as droughts may become more common in the coming years. "It is not as though these things did not happen earlier, but their frequency and the severity of some of the problems raises very serious questions about their link with the overall climate change that is taking place globally," he said.

The climate change panel warns that countries may need to prepare for more unusual weather, and the economic consequences that it brings.