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Looking for clues to navigate climate uncertainty

by Georgina Smith, CIAT | @georginajsmith | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Thursday, 31 October 2013 11:43 GMT

A farmer visits her rice paddy field in Hanoi, Vietnam, on May 22, 2013. REUTERS/Kham

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How can Southeast Asia protect its food supply in the face of climate change?

When experts gather in Vietnam to debate the likely impacts of climate change in the region, they will be looking for clues to navigate a hugely uncertain future.

In a world of constant change, there are no certainties and we can’t predict the future. But in 50 years, governments will still have to make policy, people will still have to make a living, and we will still have to eat food. 

Documenting the drivers of change which are likely to impact food security and increase vulnerability to climate change in the future will be necessary to shape policy responses. Future market forces, economic and infrastructure developments will all affect how governments react to climate change.  

In East Africa for example, population and economic growth is expected to create higher demand for meat, in turn driving livestock markets, spurning further economic growth and implicit environmental impacts.

It’s impossible to predict the spin-offs of every economic development, political spat or market slump. But the complex layers of our socio-cultural, economic and political landscapes - and what they mean for policy decisions around agriculture and food security - need to be understood. 

Climate change only adds another level of uncertainty to the future matrix. So amidst all the possible shifts, decision makers need relevant guidance referencing economic analyses, market dynamics and quantitative results which is flexible but plausible.

To this end, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, is hosting a workshop in Vietnam early next month that will use a set of scenarios projected to 2050 to capture different trajectories of socio-economic change across the region.


Southeast Asia is highly vulnerable to climate change both in terms of disasters and population intensity. The region contains important biodiversity – the world’s second largest area of rainforest after the Amazon Basin – and major rice bowls in the Mekong River and Red River deltas which are already at risk of more extreme weather events and sea level rises.  

Le Huy Ham, director general of the Vietnam Institute of Agricultural Genetics, welcomed this effort and said it addresses an urgent food security issue. In Vietnam, under the scenario of a 3-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, roughly 10 percent of the country’s agricultural coastland will be lost, impacting the lives of more than 20 million people, he said.

“The challenge in this region is to reduce greenhouse gases, especially methane from rice production systems, while boosting food production to feed a growing population on less land, with increased vulnerability to flooding, water salinity and (other) stresses,” he said.

Addressing the potential impacts of climate change using long-term scenarios is intended to raise awareness among key stakeholders and policy makers and stimulate policy dialogue and investment in both the private and public sectors.

The scenarios may not be predictions, but they will guide adaptation policy in the region and generate a regional understanding of climate vulnerability and risks. They will also suggest specific entry points for wider climate research and concrete scientific support, where otherwise only uncertainty exists. 

Georgina Smith writes for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. The “Scenarios for Future Food Security, Environments and Livelihoods in Southeast Asia” workshop targets Cambodia, Lao and Vietnam and takes place from November 5-7, in Halong City, Vietnam.

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