Extreme weather a wake-up call
Waking up last Wednesday, I was surprised to see pictures of flooding on the Facebook page of my friend, whose house is not far from my place. I live on the eighth floor of a condo so I had no clue there was flooding in my neighbourhood, though it had been raining heavily when I went to bed.
In a way, it was a relief to wake up to find news other than Covid-19 grabbing my attention. Pandemic anxiety has dominated our thoughts so completely that some of us have forgotten that we're close to the peak of the rainy season -- and that usually means floods.
Heavy rainfall and flooding hit 10 provinces last week, affecting 320,000 people, mostly in central areas of the country, according to the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation. The biggest impact was seen at Bangpoo Industrial Estate in Samut Prakan. The entire estate was under about one metre of water, with many cars and motorcycles submerged.
That reminded me of the devastating floods in 2011 that inundated hundreds of factories in central Thailand. The country's worst flood ever caused 815 deaths and property damage exceeding 1.4 trillion baht.
Thailand is far from alone when it comes to the threat from floods. Indonesia's meteorological agency has warned that natural disasters could be more severe this year as the rainy season is expected to start earlier than usual in September.
Southeast Asia's largest economy is prone to floods, landslides and sometimes cyclones. In April, Tropical cyclone Seroja, one of the most powerful ever to hit Indonesia, killed 163 people.
In China, record-breaking rainfall in the central province of Henan killed more than 300 people in July, while downpours swamped cities in several other regions. Flooding in Beijing also caused some fatalities.
Chinese cities are far from ready for the extreme weather events wrought by global warming, Greenpeace researchers warned last week. It's not just floods -- longer and hotter summers are likely in the coming decades.
The only government-led climate adaptation project was launched four years ago, according to Liu Junyan, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. It covered 28 cities, even though China has over 100 cities with populations above one million.
In July, countries in western Europe -- Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands -- also were hit by heavy floods that caused 184 fatalities in Germany and 38 in Belgium, along with considerable infrastructure damage.
A report by the Carbon Disclosure Project revealed that cities all over the world are grappling with how to adapt to the changing climate and extreme weather as they battle everything from drought in the US to heatwaves in Europe. Its analysis of more than 800 cities found that 43% don't have a plan.
Only 59% of the cities have conducted a risk and vulnerability assessment, one of the first steps to developing a climate-adaptation strategy, leaving more than 400 million people at risk, it said.
In Asia Pacific, disaster-related losses are currently estimated at $780 billion. This could nearly double, to $1.4 trillion, in a worst-case climate scenario, equivalent to 4.2% of regional GDP, according to the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2021, launched by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) in late August.
Choosing a proactive strategy of adapting to natural and other biological hazards would be far more cost-effective, at an annual cost of $270 billion, the report said.
Over the past two decades, many countries in the region have strengthened their climate resilience with more robust systems of early warning and responsive protection. As a result, fewer people are dying from natural disasters.
But the devastating impact of the pandemic has slowed the momentum of adaptation efforts, even as multiple disasters exacerbate the persistent reality of climate change. In the worst-case scenario, says Escap, the number of people at high risk will rise by around one-third with vulnerable people living in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, the Indus basin, parts of Southeast Asia and some Pacific island countries.
The impact of the pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to merge disaster risk reduction strategies into health preparedness systems, especially to support the most vulnerable populations. This will take more targeted and forward-looking fiscal spending, along with regional cooperation.
As climate change intensifies and more biological threats surely lie in wait, countries in Asia Pacific will face an increasingly complex set of hazards. We need a regional strategy for building back better with disaster, climate and health resilience.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor