Save big cities in Asia from sinking

Save big cities in Asia from sinking

Earlier this month results from a study by consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft deemed densely populated Asia as the most environmentally at-risk area in the world. How badly did the region fare?

Well, of the top 100 cities in danger -- Jakarta topped the list -- 99 are in Asia while Europe is home to the safest cities, based on an analysis of several factors such as air and water pollution, vulnerability to climate change, exposure to natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes and more. Other highlights included: India had the most cities that fared the worst, China had the largest proportion of cities, and East Asia was the most prone to natural hazards.

Although the study is meant to help investors assess risk, it is yet another reminder of the environmental challenges Thailand and Asean at large are facing. Simply put, if climate-related issues are allowed to fester, Asian megacities -- financial hubs and centre of economic activity -- will become unliveable, drive out skilled talent and jobs and hamper the economy.

But it's not just cities alone that are under threat. Rural areas are already feeling the crippling effects of climate change-related outcomes. Early this month, one report said Vietnamese rice farmers in the Mekong Delta are resorting to shrimp farming as drought and dam activity upstream on the Mekong River is turning the water saline, making it nearly impossible to grow rice.

Environmental problems may seem inconsequential today as the frontline of this fight comprises mostly of low-income individuals who are unable to raise their voice after losing their livelihood or being displaced. However, city-dwellers should be wary. In Southeast Asia, Jakarta and Bangkok are sinking fast. In fact, Bangkok, located 0.5–2 metres above sea level, is sinking at a rate of 2–3 centimetres each year. It is predicted that a large part of the capital city will be underwater by 2030, 2050, or the conservative estimate of 2100. Evidence of change can be best seen in low-lying coastal communities just south of the city in places like Bang Khun Thian where entire villages have relocated further inland after 5 square kilometres of coastline vanished over four decades.

A number of solutions by the government have been proposed, including the construction of a green belt barrier, water gate, and levees but little has been achieved. If city agencies don't step up to the task, Bangkok may face the same fate as Jakarta, half of which is already below sea level.

The city's defensive walls designed to keep water out are no longer providing the same level of protection they once did and the government is considering relocating the capital some 1,000km away to East Kalimantan. But at what cost? Is it not worth trying to save a sinking city instead of just moving the capital elsewhere and ignoring the problem?

Another key environmental problem Bangkok faces is the annual "airpocalypse". Despite constant media attention, seasonal haze problem has worsened over the years. Thailand's total carbon dioxide emissions were reportedly 275 million tonnes in 2019, a slight increase from 270 million tonnes in 2016. Emissions from Thailand in 2019 constituted 0.72 tonnes of the world's total, says the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency.

In terms of policy, the Energy 4.0 policy was implemented by the government in 2016. While clean energy initiatives under the Energy 4.0 policy -- like the push for the adoption of solar energy, electric vehicles as well as boosting energy efficiency through smart energy management -- are a step in the right direction, these clean energy initiatives are not mainstream as average citizens cannot afford to purchase renewable energy from solar and wind turbines.

There are a number of tasks the government should do to solve the "airpocalypse" problem and reduce emissions. First and foremost, it should focus on improving the public transport system to reduce the number of vehicles on the road and encouraging industrial manufacturing to utilise cleaner production methods. Yet the government has failed to do so. For instance, the ministry of industry last year delayed the adoption of the Euro 5 standard for gasoline and vehicle engines, citing the economic recession brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Countries in Europe, and Japan, have already adopted the Euro 6 standard to reduce CO2 emissions.

It's impossible for any country to mirror the policies of another as each faces a dynamic set of unique problems that lack a clear solution. However, with the UN declaring 2021 a "make or break year" in the fight against climate change, and COP26 scheduled to go ahead in November, Thailand and the Asean region at large must enable policies that help turn the tide and make its cities healthier places to live.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it's that being proactive and prepared for unprecedented situations is better than trying to apply a band-aid to a serious injury.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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