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El Niño ravages Asia's weather -- and economy

Agriculture October 6, 1997
Web posted at: 10:10 p.m. EDT (0210 GMT)

HONG KONG (CNN) -- The first downpour started the night Britain handed Hong Kong back to China. The rain continued. And continued. It came down almost uninterrupted for two months, producing the longest deluge on record in Hong Kong.

From the delayed monsoon rains in Indonesia, which allowed forest fires to affect millions of people with a pollution crisis -- to the drought that worsened North Korea's food shortage -- Asia is taking a beating from El Niño.

"We really have to put it down to an exceptionally strong El Niño event across the Pacific and throughout Southeast Asia," said Edwin Lai of the Hong Kong Observatory.

The massive periodic warming of water in the Pacific Ocean has turned weather patterns in Asia upside down and confounded forecasters.

"We don't have an understanding of why it comes about," Lai said. "But it somehow happens and we have to cope with it."

Dirty air

For most of Asia, it has been the interruption of the critical summer monsoon rains that has caused the greatest damage.

"For many economies in this part of the world, the dependency on the weather on crops, likely flooding or droughts, will have a tremendous impact on hundreds of millions of people," said Ismail Serageldin of the World Bank.

In Papua New Guinea, dried-out rivers have made it almost impossible to transport ore from mines. That has brought copper and gold mining, mainstays of the economy, to a virtual standstill.

From Australia to Cambodia to the Philippines the drought has threatened vital harvests of grain and other commodities.

"The potential problem would be a shortage of important crops, which could then lead to price increases, particularly in staples like rice," said Philippine finance secretary Roberto Ocampo.

Southeast Asia

The worst EL Niño fallout has been the smog that blankets much of Southeast Asia, which could last for weeks or even months, because the monsoon rains have been delayed.

"It is obviously an environmental disaster of enormous proportions," said Serageldin of the World Bank.

"The amount of forest that has been destroyed, the problem of people breathing, it is a very large problem," he said.

For Southeast Asia, EL Niño couldn't have come at a worse time.

In recent months, much of the region has been racked by an economic crisis as stock markets and currencies have tumbled.

And there's nothing in the forecast to suggest things will improve any time soon.

CNN Hong Kong Bureau chief Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.

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