Southeast Asia thirsts for relief from drought Worst dry spell in 40 years decimates food supply, adds to economic miseries

June 19, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

CANDABA, Philippines -- This is the year the rains didn't come to Southeast Asia. Sun and heat conquered the land, and the paddies dried up, turned into a great expanse of cracked rust-red earth that yielded little but brown tufts of dying rice.

"These fields you see," said Bienvenido Gatus, Candaba's mayor, his hand sweeping toward the horizon, "should be under 5 feet of water this time of year. Normally, we couldn't have even driven out here on this road. It'd be flooded, too."

But the thirsty land around him was as lifeless as a desert. There were no farmers about, even though in Candaba, two hours north of Manila by car, almost everyone is a farmer. The temperature stood at 100, and it was not yet noon.

The drought, now entering its second year, already has caused $20 billion in damage and lost crops in the region, the Asian Development Bank says. It has led to food shortages and several hundred deaths and is, environmentalists say, the most severe dry spell to strike Southeast Asia in at least 40 years.

Although rains in Vietnam, Indonesia and parts of the Philippines late last month lessened the crisis, meteorologists are not ready to declare the death of El Nino in these parts.

Until the skies open anew, Southeast Asia will continue to tally the toll of a terrible 12 months.

First, there was the Asian economic crisis, which destroyed a decade of progress. Then, bush fires in Indonesia choked the region with heavy blankets of haze, causing economic losses estimated at $1.3 billion. And finally, the drought took hold of the land and ravaged the livelihoods of millions.

In varying degrees, the three nightmares are interrelated.

Though El Nino is blamed for the latest crisis, humans share the responsibility, environmentalists say. In the rush to develop their economies, governments let timber companies log and clear-cut forests. That left forests, rivers and lakes vulnerable to the effects of fire and drought.

"We cannot go on saying we want to be a developed country when we cannot handle basic needs such as protecting the environment," said Gurmit Singh, an adviser to Malaysia's Environmental Protection Society. He points out that development was accompanied by little thought for expanding water and electricity supplies or safeguarding resources.

The economic crisis forced millions of Asians who had moved to the cities in search of employment to return to their rural homelands. But once there, they found that the drought had killed their chance to farm, for the current harvest season at least. And the drought fueled inflation by pushing up food prices.

In Vietnam, where 900 forest fires have flared this year, the drought has devastated the coffee crop and caused $385 million in damage overall; 50 percent of Vietnamese in rural areas are "basically unemployed," the Rural Development Ministry says.

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City had power blackouts in April and May because water produces 70 percent of Vietnam's electricity. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, 600,000 residents have been affected by water rationing.

More than 7.5 million people in 15 Indonesian provinces are facing food shortages, reports World Vision, an international relief organization.

Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter, does not have enough water to plant a second crop this year, officials at the Agricultural Ministry say. And in the Philippines, when hungry tribespeople trekked out of the hills and into the city of Cebu for food, the only help Gov. Pablo Garcia could offer was to tell them, "Eat less."

The furnace-like temperatures in Southeast Asia have been accompanied by an increase in mosquitoes, which have spread diseases like dengue fever in Thailand. In some Indonesian villages, aid workers say, every resident has malaria. Vietnam has had to cope with an infestation of rats foraging for food, while the Philippines has seen an advancing army of worms.

When El Nino does become history, agricultural experts in the region worry that its sibling, La Nina, could be the next unwelcome visitor. La Nina is the cooling of the same Pacific waters that were warmed by El Nino, and it can lead to heavy rainfall and flooding.

La Nina could be particularly dangerous this season because the sweeping forest fires in half a dozen countries have stripped the land of its protective covering, raising the possibility of severe flooding and landslides.

"People are much more scared of La Nina than of El Nino," said Emmanuel Guanlao, who heads a disaster relief program near Candaba. "El Nino can only take your crops. But La Nina can come in the night and take your life."

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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