Asia swelters in El Nino heatwave

February is on track to become Singapore's driest month, as well as one of the hottest on record.

Peninsular Malaysia is experiencing water shortages, from the Kedah rice fields in the north to parts of Johor in the south, where taps ran dry over the Chinese New Year.

China is reporting severe drought and a shortage of drinking water, affecting millions in the south-western part of the country.

And in the Philippines, the largest corn-producing region, is withering under a blazing sun.

Weather experts say the region is once again grappling with the severe effects of the El Nino phenomenon, which sparked forest fires and the haze more than 10 years ago.

This time, the parched conditions are causing grief to farmers and raising concerns about water shortages.

The National Environment Agency's Meteorological Services Division said Singapore received 5.3mm of rainfall from February 1 to February 23. The lowest rainfall for any month was 8.4mm, recorded in February 1968 and February 2005.

The highest maximum temperature this month - 35 deg C - equalled last year's record high for the same month.

The hottest day in Singapore was on March 26, 1998, when the mercury hit 36 deg C.

Dr Matthias Roth, a climate researcher at the National University of Singapore, noted that temperatures in Singapore have been rising since the 1960s because of global warming and increasing urbanisation, as buildings tend to trap heat.

In south-western China, more than seven million people lack adequate drinking water and millions of hectares of crops have been affected.

Yunnan province, a top producer of sugar cane and rubber, is experiencing its worst drought in six decades.

On Sunday, angry and desperate corn farmers in the Philippines' Isabela province, which has not had rain in three months, threw ruined crops at the provincial government headquarters in Iligan City.

They have yet to recover from the enormous losses they suffered because of the typhoons late last year, according to congressman Rafael Mariano.

Pagasa, the national weather bureau, expects El Nino to last until June, with temperatures set to hit 40 deg C soon in some parts of the country.

But its impact on the farm economy and dam levels will probably be felt well beyond mid-year, said Pagasa climatologist Edna Juanillo.

The agriculture department estimates that the damage to crops from El Nino could total 10 billion pesos (US$216 million).

In Manila, the authorities are already urging the city's 12 million residents to conserve water, as water companies scramble to repair leaking pipes.

"It may well come to rationing because people don't recognise the need to conserve until it is too late," said Juanillo.

The El Nino phenomenon, which occurs every two to seven years, is caused by the abnormal warming of the sea surface in the Pacific Ocean.

In South-east Asia, the weather becomes hotter and drier than usual. Bush and forest fires are common.

What's El Nino?

The El Nino weather phenomenon occurs every two to seven years and is caused by the abnormal warming of the sea surface in the Pacific Ocean.

A strong El Nino is associated with drought and floods in different parts of the world. In South-east Asia, it brings hotter weather than usual during the dry season.

The last major El Nino took place in 1998, causing forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia, blanketing the region in haze.

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