As Asia’s monsoon season begins, leading climate specialists and agricultural scientists warned that rapid climate change and its potential to intensify droughts and floods could end Southeast Asia’s global dominance in rice production and pose a significant threat to millions of people across the region.

“Climate change endangers crop and livestock yields and the health of fisheries and forests at the very same time that surging populations worldwide are placing new demands on food production,” said Bruce Campbell of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). “These clashing trends challenge us to transform our agriculture systems so they can sustainably deliver the food required to meet our nutritional needs and support economic development, despite rapidly shifting growing conditions.”

Southeast Asia recently has experienced dramatic meteorological swings, as last year’s record flooding was preceded by a record drought in 2010. These and many other extreme weather events around the world have hammered global food prices, stretching their impact beyond immediate personal and ecological tragedies.

In Thailand, a drought during the 2010 growing season caused $450 million in crop damages. One year later, massive flooding in 2011 caused $40 billion in damages that rippled through all sectors of Thailand’s economy.

“In the fields, there is no debate whether climate change is happening or not,” said Raj Paroda of the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI). “Now, we must think about what the research community can provide governments to guide effective action. Given the region’s current state of food insecurity, climate-smart agriculture has to become the central part of Asia’s adaptation strategy.”

South and Southeast Asia are home to more than one-third of the world’s population and half of the world’s poor and malnourished. Absent new approaches to food production, climate change in this region is expected to reduce agriculture productivity by as much as 50 percent in the next three decades. And with agriculture serving as the backbone of most economies in the region, such plunging yields would shake countries to the core.

Also, farmers are being pressed to focus not just on coping with climate change but also on mitigating the impact of agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions. Farming, along with forestry and land use change, accounts for almost one third of greenhouse gas emissions globally. 

In response, it is imperative that agriculture simultaneously become more productive, more resilient and more climate-friendly, according to participants at a conference on climate smart agriculture in Asia taking place this week in Bangkok. The conference is being convened by APAARI, CCAFS, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“Meeting this challenge will require more than age-old approaches centered on collecting as much water as possible, such as simply building large dams,” said Matthew McCartney of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

Most Asian countries became food self-sufficient in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of investments made during the Green Revolution that ushered in new crop varieties, wider irrigation and better water management. Today, the mega-deltas of Asia’s major rivers are the rice bowls for the world and are crucial to meeting global grain demand. 

But now, the growing variability between seasons has increased pressures on water supplies, while at the same time rising sea levels are tainting freshwater supplies with high levels of salinity. This troublesome combination is putting Asia’s global supremacy in rice production at risk. In Southeast Asia, for example, some of the major river basins—including the Chao Phraya in Thailand and the Red in Vietnam—are considered “closed” because all of the water flow has been claimed.

In South Asia, the Ganges and Indus river basins underpin the food security of well over a billion people. Yet danger signs are looming: 88 percent of Indians live in river basins with some form of water scarcity or food deficit. In Southeast Asia, despite the wider use of irrigation, approximately 75 percent of crops are still rain-fed and remain especially vulnerable to the vagaries of the climate.