Months before another El Ni*o, expected to deepen drought around the country, hundreds of rice paddies have already produced failed harvests. Data from the Agriculture Ministry showed that 26,388 hectares of rice paddies suffered from drought in the April to June period due to water shortages.

"However, the figure is still far lower than it was in the 2003 to 2007 period when an average of 82,472 hectares of rice paddies suffered from drought each year," Ati Wasiati, director for the protection of food crops at the Agriculture Ministry told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

She remained optimistic about the target to plant rice in 5 million hectares up until September despite the expected impacts of the El Ni*o phenomenon.

El Ni*o, a climate phenomenon with significant influence on global weather and ocean conditions, is predicted to hit the Asian region, including Indonesia, later this year or in early 2010. The phenomenon, associated with warmer tropical waters in the Pacific, occurs once every two to five years and continues for about 12 months.

El Ni*o last occurred in 1997, 2002 and 2006, causing huge forest fires in Indonesia and resulted in decreased food production due to water shortages.

The country currently has about 12.4 million hectares of rice paddies, 4 million of which are irrigated.

In 1997, Indonesia imported about 5 million tons of rice due to prolonged drought caused by the effects of El Ni*o.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has warned of food shortages as a result of the return of El Ni*o and has asked the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) to continue to closely monitor the development of climatic phenomenon.

Gatot Irianto, an climate change expert from the Agriculture Ministry dismissed the severe impacts of the El Ni*o on food shortage.

"Rains will occur when El Ni*o hits, which will create warmer temperatures at sea and cause evaporation," he said.

He added the country was likely to experience the peak of the drought until the end of August.

Kompas reported that droughts had hit several areas including 1,600 hectares of rice paddy fields in West Java,Yogyakarta and Aceh, with soil cracking from a lack of water.

Paskah Suzetta, a state minister and the head of the National Development Planning Board (Bappenas), previously said that El Ni*o would increase the state budget deficit.

"The government's precautionary efforts to counter the effects of El Ni*o may expand the state budget deficit from about 1.5 percent to 1.7 percent," he said.

Environmental activists have also warned that El Ni*o will cause severe forest fires across the country. As of July 17, WWF Indonesia had detected about 9,841 hot spots in the country, mostly in Riau, with 4,581 hot spots and West Kalimantan with 1,010 hot spots.

The 1997 forest fires resulted in Indonesia being the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. The smoke from those fires was blown as far away as Malaysia and Singapore.