As hundreds of millions of people across Southeast Asia and India wait for the seasonal monsoons to roll in and wash away some of the region's sweltering heat, the generally joyous anticipation has taken on a terrible new dynamic.
In large regions of Asia, a severe, years-long drought has ravaged the normally fertile soils – and thrown the lives of millions of families into chaos and economic uncertainty. As of now, it's not even certain annual rains will bring relief from the agony.
As a result of the drought, crops of staples such as rice, and crucial export crops such as cane sugar, have failed from south Vietnam to India's populous state of Maharashtra. Farmers are left with cracked, dry earth and no crops to show for all the money they sank into the soil. Their families are hurting. But the taps, as well as the fields, are bone dry. There are now tens of millions of people who are suffering through stark water shortages, lining up for hours or even overnight with plastic vessels for water trucked into their communities, or brought from afar on railway tankers. A 12-year-old village girl in a drought-hit part of Maharashtra reportedly died recently of heat stroke after being sent to fetch water, and last month a 10-year-old Indian girl reportedly fell to death in a well as she tried to draw up desperately needed water.
The chaos and tragedy wrought by these droughts is part of a larger and more worrying weather pattern across large swaths of the globe. The United Nations says the current El Nino – the same one that intensified widespread forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, whose smoke can be seen from space – has dramatically affected the livelihoods of more than 60 million people from Asia to Africa and across Central Asia.
With water shortages in India affecting more than 330 million people, and also food production from Africa to North Korea, drought has silently become a global catastrophe – even without factoring in the depressing long-term trends of global warming. There is also the potential for drought, particularly in democratic parts of Asia, to reshape politics – and add a volatile new dimension to democratic debate.
The United Nations this week called for worldwide action. "I am here to sound the alarm – again," Stephen O'Brien, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator, said in Geneva this week. "We must act today to help people whose entire way of life and survival is threatened."
The situation is dire in Vietnam. The country is thought to be going through the worst drought in 90 years, with the Mekong at its lowest levels since 1926. Roughly two million are without water, 60,000 women and children are now malnourished, and more than 1.7 million have lost their livelihoods, according to the UN.
In Thailand, the drought has destroyed billions of dollars of rice crops in one of the world's top rice exporters, bringing immense hardship to farmers. The Thai Finance Ministry has been forced to offer nearly $2-billion (U.S.) in emergency funds and long-term aid to poor farmers.
Elsewhere, in the Philippines, the drought has driven farmers to clash with police. But El Nino's devastating impact is truly global. In various countries in eastern and southern Africa, El Nino has led to serious food shortages and surging prices. In North Korea, the country's already impoverished and oppressed citizens are facing declining food production for the first time since 2010.
But it is India where the most people are hardest hit. El Nino's impact has even begun to alter politics on the subcontinent, as it has in Indonesia, where surging forest fires renewed pressure on Indonesian President Joko Widodo. In both countries, the weather was at least partly responsible for deflating and derailing hopeful new political mandates.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's majority government in New Delhi has been besieged over the past two years as the rival Indian National Congress mustered weary, frustrated farmers to oppose Mr. Modi's attempt to reform India's arduous land-acquisition laws. Last year at a protest against these reforms, a farmer climbed a tree and hung himself in defiance – shaming the government. Suicide among Indian farmers is a tragic last resort to indebtedness and crop loss, and there have now been two years of bad drought, combined with heavy rains that fell on parched fields and destroyed crops.
The result of all this was a budget in late February that focused on the countryside and farmers' livelihoods. Mr. Modi, like leaders in Thailand and across Asia, is now opening the fiscal floodgates to try and quell misery and potential unrest in the hinterland – and his attempt is unlikely to be the last, as global warming continues to raise temperatures and extreme weather events make already-precarious lives even more dangerous.