The Importance of Rice: Why We Should Care about Sri Lanka’s Changing Climate Dry rice terraces in Sri Lanka. Credit: Bioversity International/S/Landersz

The Importance of Rice: Why We Should Care about Sri Lanka’s Changing Climate

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The beginning of 2018 saw bitter temperatures and deadly winds batter the United States and Europe while at the same time, one of the worst droughts in over 40 years decimated Sri Lanka’s future rice crops. Worldwide, droughts, floods, and extreme weather are becoming more common as climate change warms the globe. Sri Lanka and the rest of South Asia are likely to face some of the worst impacts, leaving the region vulnerable to dangerous secondary consequences from food insecurity.

South Asia can be seen as a region of extremes. Extreme heat in the deserts, monsoons and flooding in coastal areas, and extreme cold in the Himalayas. Over hundreds of thousands of years, communities have learned to adapt to those extremes. Unfortunately, climate change is undermining those communities ability to adapt. As global temperatures continue to rise, those droughts, floods, and extreme weather will become more unpredictable and severe. Such changes have a number of potential consequences. In some places, like Bangladesh, rising sea levels will force people to move permanently as their communities are submerged. At the same time, other parts of the region will face blistering heat and weakening monsoon season, leading to both extreme drought and flood as light rainfall becomes less common. Most communities are resilient enough to bounce back from the “once-in-a-decade” drought or flood but as those events occur more frequently communities have less time to recover.

Agriculture across South Asia is (and will be) hard hit by increasing extremes. While not the largest contributor to GDP, it is the largest source of employment across the region. Over 40% of each country is employed in agriculture with rice a key staple for both livelihoods and nutrition. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlines how climate change will have a negative impact on rice production with inconsistent and extreme rainfall along with higher temperatures leading to “lower rice yields as a result of shorter growing periods.” Already, “there are a number of regions that are already near the heat stress limits for rice.” Sri Lanka’s historic drought in early 2018 is predicted to cause rice shortages as crops usually harvested in June couldn’t be planted. While it’s unlikely there will be a collapse of the global rice market in 2018 due to the loss of Sri Lanka’s production, there is cause for concern about future rice production across South Asia.

Due to its prominence as a source of food and employment, the consequences of a collapse in rice production would be severe. A long-term drought and crop failure would force farmers to give up their land and move into urban environments. Urbanization is a valid coping mechanism for many rural communities but can also lead to increased tension within urban communities as jobs and services are stretched to their breaking point. Any major collapse in rice production could also lead to a spike in global rice prices. This would make it even more challenging for those unemployed farmers to buy the staples they previously grew and relied on. Large, unemployed, frustrated communities in dense urban environments are a recipe for disaster. Existing political or social tensions can explode under the added stress and strain. Climate change is never the sole cause of conflict or instability but acts as a “threat multiplier,” making those existing points of friction more likely to collide. And there are plenty of underlying grievances or tensions within South Asia. Whether violent protests in India over caste-based oppression, tension over Bangladeshi immigrants, or water disputes between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan as they simultaneously construct power plants on the Neelum River, the region is full of internal disputes.

Such an explosive outcome is not unheard of. Climate change has been identified as a threat multiplier in the lead up to the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war. The combination of bad national water management policies and historic droughts from 2008 through 2010 destroyed wheat crops across Syria and the Mediterranean, leading to a surge of over one million people across Syria into urban areas. At the same time, the drought in the Mediterranean and wildfires in Russia led to a crash in wheat supply and subsequent sky-rocketing of wheat prices, a staple for the region. Those cities that saw an influx in refugees, were often the same cities where initial protests and revolts developed. Again, climate change was certainly not the primary cause of the civil war but the deteriorating environmental conditions aided in the beginning of the unrest.

There is good reason to be concerned that a similar situation might develop in South Asia. The region is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. With the added stress of explosive population growth and urbanization, the region needs to plan for future instability. In order to manage the risk, countries should be proactive about managing the strain of growing populations, developing and enforcing water management policies, and addressing some of the simmering tensions that exist at both the regional and local level. Without addressing some of these core issues, the region faces almost certain instability into the future.