Extreme weather conditions: Is China staring at a food security crisis?

While China’s economy continues to be in the throes of problems as it is not able to generate enough jobs in the market, it is staring at a crisis at the food security front. The country’s Meteorological Administration has predicted deadly El Nino gripping it in coming weeks and months that will lead to the likely return of floods in the southern region and droughts in the north. Already around 30 million metric tons of wheat have been damaged in Henan, Anhui, Shanxi, and Shandong provinces due to excessive rains in May. Of this total, Henan province, popularly known as the grain bowl of China, lost more than 20 million metric tonnes of wheat. The losses may mean rising grain imports into China, the world’s biggest wheat consumer, Reuters said.

On account of extreme weather conditions, one-twelfth of China’s total rice yield has declined over the last two decades, a monthly peer-reviewed academic journal Nature Food said in its recent study. Recently, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that El Nino’s effect could remain for eight to 10 months and is likely to gradually strengthen into the Northern Hemisphere winter that will stretch into next year.

In the last week of May, China’s Department of Emergency Management warned that northeastern and northern parts which are home to some of the country’s top grainproducing provinces might experience heavy rain, floods, and hailstorms from June to August. Yunnan, lying in China’s Southwestern area, continues to face drought. Average rainfall in Yunnan, during the first quarter of 2023 was 60% lower than the same period last year, South China Morning Post quoted the country’s Department of Emergency Management as saying. The province is the country’s second-largest source of hydropower, with 80% of power supply coming from hydropower, but the drought has dented the province’s power generation capacity. While more than 870,000 people in Yunnan province’s 12 cities and prefectures were affected by the drought to different degrees in the first quarter of this year, the last sugar mill in the province was closed down on May 11 due to non-production of sufficient sugarcane, the Hong Kong-based daily English newspaper said.

China consumes nearly 16 million metric tons of sugar annually. In 2022, it could produce only 9 million metric tons of sugar and this year, it is expected that sugar production could decline furthermore due to drought and other extreme weather conditions in the country. Global Times, which is a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, last year in August quoted the country’s Ministry of Water Resources as saying that the water level of the main stream of the Yangtze River hit a record low, and 9.67 million mu of arable land in 6 provinces and cities from Anhui to Sichuan suffered from drought. The last El Nino to hit China hard was in 2016. It is said that the impact of El Nino, a climate pattern that leads to unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, was so devastative that it led to China’s worst flooding in decades, with reported economic losses of 255.1 billion yuan, or 3% of the GDP that year.

According to South China Morning Post, more than 31 million people in 12 provinces were affected and over 2.7 million hectares of farmland were submerged due to El Nino triggered rain and typhoons that hit central and southern China in June 2016. It had led to the death of 237 people, destruction of farms, damage of transportation arteries. In 1998, the dance of destruction, caused by El Nino, had almost snuffed life out of China. As per the Chinese government estimates 223 million people—one fifth of China’s population were affected, 3004 people died and 15 million were made homeless due to extensive flooding of the Yangtze River and its tributaries. As many as 15 million farmers had lost their crops due to floods in China in 1998.

In 2023, China is staring at the same deadly prospect due to El Nino as a report prepared by the National Disaster Reduction Committee Office and ministries of natural resources, water resources, agriculture and rural affairs and the China Meteorological Administration and State Forestry and Grassland Administration has painted a gloomy picture of the country. As per this report, while the country’s North may face a heightened risk of water-related disasters, the South is likely to face drought. On the other hand, eastern China which is known as a key engine of economic growth, is likely to experience typhoon triggered disasters.

On account of such extreme weather conditions, China’s effort to ensure food security for its 1.4 billion people has suffered hugely, making the country dependent on others for the supply of corn, soyabeans, and wheat to record levels, said Bloomberg in its recent report. China was the world’s largest importer of wheat in 2022, bringing in an estimated 12 million tonnes of wheat, said the US Department of Agriculture. The total rice imports, from January to August 2022, reached 4.56 million tons, up 42.5% year-on-year, said China’s General Administration of Customs (GAC). It also imported 20.63 million tons of corn in 2022, as per China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. With China’s economy not in good health and several financial institutions from Nomura to UBS and Standard Chartered, Bank of America and JP Morgan cutting their forecast for the country’s 2023 GDP growth to 5.1% from 5.5%, faltering food security situation may further impact the world’s second largest economy hard, say analysts.