‘Worrisome signs’ for global rice crop

The world’s top rice expert warned here Friday of “worrisome signs,” with high prices for rice and fertiliser and stocks at their lowest levels for about 30 years.

Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), said new farm technologies were needed to replicate the gains made from the “Green Revolution,” which had lifted hundreds of millions of rural Asians out of poverty.

“There are a number of worrisome signs suggesting that new challenges lie ahead,” he told an international rural poverty conference in the Philippine capital Manila.

“There has been a slowdown in growth in rice production as the yield gains from the adoption of the modern varieties in the irrigated areas have become almost fully exploited and the rice area is declining,” Zeigler said.

“Over the past five years, (the) international rice price has doubled and price for urea (fertiliser) tripled, the latter spurred on by the rise in oil prices.”

Zeigler said “rice stocks are their lowest level since the 1970s.”

Rice is the staple food for half the world’s population and of most of its poorest people, providing about 20 percent of direct human calorie intake worldwide, according to the IRRI.

Zeigler said “the rising demand for biofuels, the pressures that urbanisation and industrialisation place on land and water resources… and the long-term effects of global warming” would require “new technologies that can be rapidly disseminated” to boost output and keep prices low and stable.

Extreme weather? Sure. Blame global warming? Not so fast

Massive floods, blistering heat waves and bizarre cold snaps since the start of the year may not be the result of climate change, but extreme weather has become more frequent, some scientists say.

The UN’s World Meteorological Organisation has reported on findings that “there is an increasing trend in extreme events observed during the last 50 years.”

It adds that “weather and climate are marked by record extremes in many regions across the world since January 2007.”

Examples are not hard to find.

The death toll from the worst monsoon floods to hit South Asia in decades passed 2,000 on Thursday, while Britain’s recent floods were the country’s worst for 60 years.

Southern Europe has dealt with record temperatures this summer in a brutal heat wave, South Africa has seen unusually heavy snowfall and the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires got snow for the first time in 89 years.

Cyclone Gonu, the first documented tropical cyclone in the Arabian Sea, hit Oman and Iran in June, causing 50 deaths.

But establishing a link between climate change and extreme weather is a controversial matter.

The UN’s weather agency says its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that “the warming of the climate is unequivocal.” Preliminary observations indicated global land surface temperatures in January and April reached the highest levels ever recorded for those months, it said.

“Climate change projections indicate it to be very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent,” it said recently.

A study by researchers from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Georgia Institute of Technology says about twice as many Atlantic hurricanes form each year on average than a century ago.

It blames warmer sea surface temperatures and altered wind patterns associated with global climate change for “fueling much of the increase,” the center said in a statement.

But scientists caution there is not enough evidence to blame global warming for recent extreme weather, and there are those who say there is no proof that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.

Barry Gromett of Britain’s Met Office weather service said much of the extreme weather was down to variability in the climate, which is affected by greenhouse gases but also other factors such as El Nino.

El Nino events are when drastic changes in sea temperatures in tropical areas affect atmospheric pressure in the Pacific Ocean region, having a knock-on effect on rainfall.

“There’s a danger in taking isolated incidents in any given year and attributing this to something like climate change,” he said.

“It’s really important to look for trends over a longer period of time. More heat equals more moisture equals probably higher rains, so in that respect some of it ties in quite nicely (with climate change).

“But there are many different facets that appear to contradict each other.”

A study by British Met Office experts released on Thursday found that natural weather variations actually helped offset the effects of global warming the past couple of years, but with temperatures set to rise to new records beginning in 2009.

Jean Jouzel, a climatologist who represents France on the IPCC, said “several more years would be needed to establish a link, or to not establish a link, between these extremes and global warming.”

“Are the extremes really changing? It’s not so simple, because by definition, the extremes are rare events, and to come up with statistics, some hindsight is needed,” he added.

Japan nuclear plant hit by arson wave

A Japanese nuclear plant was hit Thursday by the latest in a series of suspicious small-scale fires, the operator said, amid rising public concern about the country’s nuclear industry.

Six suspected arson incidents have been reported since July 3 at the Tomari nuclear power plant, on the southern tip of Japan’s northern Hokkaido island.

“We found the scorched remains of toilet paper today at an office for workers outside the main construction site,” where a new reactor is being built, Hokkaido Electric Power Co. spokesman Shinichi Ishide said.

Earlier cases have included a plastic sheet that was found burned at the construction site.

“All the fires were found in places where fires would not start naturally,” Ishide said.

The company has taken precautions such as banning employees from working alone and checking their belongings.

The fires come amid public concern over nuclear safety in Japan.

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, the world’s largest nuclear power plant, located northwest of Tokyo, was hit last month by an earthquake, causing a fire, a small radiation leak and the shutdown of the plant.

A mission from the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on Thursday finished a four-day inspection of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, including on its preparedness to extinguish fires.

“We’ve been very active this week because we visited all the plants,” team leader Philippe Jamet said after the inspection.

The team was due to head Friday to Tokyo to discuss its findings with the industry ministry.

Japan, which has virtually no natural energy resources, relies on nuclear power for nearly one-third of its electricity needs.

The Tomari power plant currently has two reactors operating, with the third 900,000-kilowatt reactor expected to start running in December 2009.

28 dead, hundreds homeless in S.Africa inferno

A total of 28 people died and hundreds of homes were destroyed by a series of forest fires which have swept through parts of South Africa and Swaziland since the end of last month, officials said Thursday.

“26 deaths have been reported thus far,” in South Africa alone, said a statement issued after a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

Two people were reported dead as a result of the fire in neighbouring Swaziland.

“Over 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) of commercial plantations (and a further 18,000 (44,500 acres) in Swaziland) and over 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of grazing land have been extensively damaged”‘ by the rampaging fire, it said.

Thousands of jobs have been lost while loss of foreign revenue has also been recorded, the statement said, without giving details.

The fire raged in the rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province and neighbouring Mpumalanga, Free State, Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.

“These are the worst fires in the history of our country,” the statement said.

A statement from KZN’s provincial government said thousands of pigs, sheep, cows and goats were either burnt alive or had to be put down.

An initial estimate said that around 320 homes were destroyed in KZN while there was also widespread damage to property in Mpumalanga, although an exact tally had not been established.

In neighbouring Swaziland, two people were killed as a fire destroyed 80 percent of a thick pine forest, as fires crossed over from South Africa, leaving some 100 people homeless.

Heavy winds fanned the flames after an exceptionally dry winter in the north.

“We still do not know the actual cause of the fire but we suspect it might be due to the very dry weather conditions in the affected areas,” said Mtholephi Mthimkhulu of KZN’s agriculture and environmental affairs department.

E. Africa drought needs long-term solution: experts

A widespread drought in East Africa has left millions of facing starvation, but experts argue that while dry spells are cyclical the humanitarian catastrophes they are causing are avoidable.

Seasons of failed rains in southern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, Somalia and parts of Djibouti have struck the region with its worst drought in decades, with around 10 million people in dire need of relief aid.

“The droughts are cyclical, they are inevitable,” said Alexander Matheou, the regional representative of the International Federation of the Red Cross. “What is not inevitable is that every time it turns into a humanitarian crisis,” he said.

Two years ago, huge food shortages and loss of livelihood sparked by a harsh drought also left millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance.

But the rains that followed were erratic and insufficient, so that residents hardly recovered from the drought.

In Kenya’s northern Turkana region, malnutrition rates have increased to 37 percent, compared to 15 percent in 2010, according to the aid group Oxfam.

Malnutrition rates among children under five in Somalia are now the world’s highest, owing to persistent violence and the unprecedented drought, the international Red Cross said.

Thousands of Somalis are fleeing daily into neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya to seek relief from the effects of drought and war.

Relief groups are struggling to cope with the crisis as Western governments pledge funds to come to the rescue of the devastated millions.

While drought remains a natural disaster, failure or inability by regional governments to prepare for crises, and to establish and effect long-term measures to lessen human suffering, worsens the consequences.

Conflicts such as Somalia’s relentless civil strife since 1991 and other insurgencies have also disrupted lifestyles, displacing hundreds of thousands whose plight is compounded by drought.

“It is important to remember that this (crisis) is also man-made to an extent. Although it is caused by failed rains, this is also caused by failure of governments to take a long-term approach,” said Oxfam’s Alun McDonald.

Emergency aid remains palliative and often reaches those in need when they are desperate and frail.

“Certainly emergency aid at the latest stage of drought is not the best way to go. It becomes necessary because certain things have not been done earlier,” Matheou said.

Governments should invest more in agricultural research to develop drought resistant crops and fodder for livestock and donors should support measures to curb the effects of drought.

“Although governments and their development partners cannot make the rains come, they can mitigate the impact of these recurring droughts in East Africa by helping farmers and herders build resilience to these inevitable meteorological occurrences,” said Kevin Cleaver of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

The areas in East Africa often affected by the cyclical drought have also been neglected by governments, with no electricity, roads, water and other basic health and education facilities.

Resolving Somalia’s long-running conflict is key to easing the suffering of millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance as well as restoring regional stability.

Experts warn that the current drought will peak in August, with the next rains expected in October.

“Even then, it will take a few months for harvest, for people to plant again, for pasture to grow for animals to eat. So even if it rains in October, the impact of the crisis will still be felt until the end of 2011 at least,” McDonald said.