EL NIÑO, THE periodic warming of sea-surface-temperatures in the Pacific, is already if prematurely being blamed for the worst drought to hit northern and central China in 60 years. State media says more than 27.5 million people are facing water shortages across at least six provinces.
Previous El Niños caused flooding in the southern rice-growing regions, as they did so disastrously along the Yangtze River in 1998, even as they brought drought to the wheat-growing provinces of the north. The extreme weather produced by El Niño in 1876–77 caused one of that century’s most deadly famines across Asia, with 13 million people dying from hunger in northern China alone.
While the latest El Nino conditions are only just starting to form in the Pacific, they are exacerbating the hot, dry weather in northern China, which was already suffering from serious water shortages as a result of years of deforestation, industrialization and urbanization.
The previous El Niño in 2009 triggered a sharp fall in wheat output. State media say that drought in Liaoning Province has so far devastated 2 million hectares of crops. An El Niño would ratchet up that number significantly.
Drought is also severe in Jilin, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Henan and Hubei, affecting a further 2 million hectares of crops. The overall effects on harvests could be significant. A break to a run of 11 consecutive years of rising wheat harvests looks likely. The key question is whether this turns out to be a short El Niño lasting a few months, or a more long-standing event lasting as long as a couple of years.
China is not alone in being affected by El Niño. The net effect around the Pacific could be to cut global grain harvests by upwards of 2%. Sugar, beef, cotton, palm oil, cocoa and coffee output could also be hit, pushing up prices of those commodities. China’s cotton fields are south of the Yellow River, and like the rice paddies, subject to El Niño-related flooding.