The Latest on Southeast Asia: August 17, 2023

Roughly half of the world’s population depends on rice as a food staple for survival. Climate change, alongside El Niño, is dramatically shifting production, especially for rice. For Southeast Asian countries, these shifts are particularly salient—30 percent of the world’s rice harvest comes from the region, and rice accounts for 50 percent of the caloric intake for Southeast Asia’s population. Continued changes could cascade into a multi-pronged crisis, resulting in food shortages, inflation, and destruction of livelihoods affecting millions. Changing weather patterns have negatively affected rice production across Asia in different ways. Rice paddies in the Mekong Delta, known as Vietnam’s “rice bowl,” have been drying out. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, extreme rain and flooding have decimated fields.

India, the world’s largest rice exporter, accounts for roughly 40 percent of global rice production. Its recent ban on non-basmati white rice exports to control domestic prices could shift the balance of rice prices throughout Southeast Asia, and disrupt rice supply in many Asian and African countries. Thailand and Vietnam, the second and third largest exporters of rice, respectively, have an opportunity to fill the vacuum left by India. But poor weather may prevent that. In Thailand, drought may cause this year’s crop yield to drop as much as 6 percent, or around 25 million tons; if the drought continues, it may hurt output for upcoming years as well. In addition, the unavailability of Indian rice will increase the prices of Thai and Vietnamese rice, leading to market instability.

Southeast Asian countries are trying to mitigate the impact of high prices and rice shortages, with import-dependent Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines expressing concern. Governments throughout the region are employing different measures to mitigate price market fluctuations. Thailand and Indonesia are looking to increase production. Due to increased demand, many Thai farmers are looking to produce additional crops, which may further deplete water supplies. In Indonesia, the government prepared additional rice fields in anticipation of a shortfall. Southeast Asia’s biggest rice importer, the Philippines, negotiated rice prices with Vietnam to secure supply and curb inflation. Governments must balance supply and price, which are at a 15-year high, carefully.

As rice crops have underperformed in recent years, many Asian nations have turned to wheat products to fill in the gap. But wheat supply chains have been severely impacted by the Russia-Ukraine war, increasing food insecurity throughout the region. The weight of climate change will fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable — small farmers who are struggling with their crops, and buyers across the region who may be unable to afford a staple part of their diet.

Yumei Lin is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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Yumei Lin

Research Intern, Southeast Asia Program