Drought Update: Not Out of the Woods

August 13, 2015 7:00 AM

Last month, Marc Noland did a series of posts on the 100-year drought that wasn’t (final post here). After May rains only reached 55 percent of their normal levels, nerves were frayed before precipitation picked up in June, reaching 90 percent of the norm. The good news continued into July. However a new Global Information and Early Warning System report on the wider problem of the regional El Nino underlines Noland’s warning that the country is not out of the woods yet.

The problem is that the dry conditions hit right during the planting season and were compounded by a sharp decline in water levels in reservoirs. The result: not only declines in the areas planted but likely adverse effects on early-planted crops (maize and soybeans) as well. The FAO/WFP no longer have the access to the country to do their periodic Crop and Food Security Assessments (which we used extensively in writing Famine in North Korea). The new GIEWS report has to rely on what the North Korean National Coordinating Committee (NCC) is saying, with the potential for bias. Those NCC estimates on early season crops—wheat, barley and potatoes—anticipate declines in total yields of 25 percent as well as predictions of 12 and 15 percent declines for rice and corn respectively. The FAO tentatively buys into these exact estimates on the two main staples.

These estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, but they are not implausible. How they will affect actual consumption and nutrition will depend on aid and the government’s willingness to import.

On aid, the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has a short brief highlighting the risks. Public Distribution System rations are down earlier than last year, and in any case are well below a basic human need minimum. OCHA also reports a marked increase in the incidence of diarrhoea in the four target provinces hit hardest by the drought: North and South Hwanghae, South Pyongan and South Hamgyong. But the report also shows ongoing evidence of aid fatigue. The current $117 million combined appeal is only 36% funded ($40 million) and $6 million of that is from the Central Emergency Response Fund.

On trade, Leo Byrne at NKNews is doing the kind of data-driven journalism we like. He has a nice graphic comparing cereal imports for 2013 and 2014 to developments so far this year. The finding? Imports are lagging prior years, despite the claims of a 100-year drought. If the NCC and FAO are correct, let’s hope it doesn’t stay that way.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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