Tell Flood-prone Thailand that Disasters will Multiply in the Future

Tell Flood-prone Thailand that Disasters will Multiply in the Future

A new UN report seems to state the obvious…it
concludes that man-made climate change has boosted the frequency or intensity
of heat waves, wildfires, floods and cyclones and that such disasters are
likely to multiply in the future. Thailand pretty much knows that as it
grapples with the impact of the worst flooding for many decades…is it a 50 or
100 year occurrence? For sure it will happen again.

By Marlowe Hood  for AFP (1 November 2011):

A new UN report concludes that man-made
climate change has boosted the frequency or intensity of heat waves, wildfires,
floods and cyclones and that such disasters are likely to multiply in the

The draft document, which has been three
years in the making, says the severity of the impacts vary, with some regions
more vulnerable than others.

Hundreds of scientists working under the
Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) will vet the phonebook-sized
draft at a meeting in Kampala of the 194-nation body later this month.

“This is the largest effort that has
ever been made to assess how extremes are changing,” said Neville
Nicholls, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and a
coordinating lead author of one of the review’s key chapters.

The report’s authors stress that the level of
“confidence” in the findings depends on the quantity and quality of
data available.

But the overall picture that emerges is one
of enhanced volatility and frequency of dangerous weather, leading in turn to a
sharply increased risk for large swathes of humanity in coming decades.

AFP obtained a copy of the draft report’s
20-page Summary for Policymakers, which is subject to revision by governments
before release on November 18.

A series of natural catastrophes around the
world has boosted the need to determine whether such events are freaks of the
weather or part of a long-term shift in climate.

In 2010, record temperatures fuelled
devastating forest fires across Siberia, while Pakistan and India reeled from
unprecedented flooding.

This year, the United States has suffered a record
number of billion-dollar disasters from flooding in the Mississippi and
Missouri Rivers to Hurricane Irene to a drought in Texas.

China is reeling from lack of water too, even
as central America and Thailand count their dead from recent flooding.

These events match predicted impacts of
global warming, which has raised temperatures, increased the amount of water in
the atmosphere and warmed ocean surface temperatures — all drivers of extreme

But teasing apart the role of natural
fluctuations in the weather and rising levels of greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere has proven devilishly difficult.

The nine-chapter Special Report on Managing
the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,
or SREX, pored over hundreds of recent scientific studies in search of

The new report’s main conclusions about
future trends include:

- It is “virtually certain” –
99-100% sure — that the frequency and magnitude of record-hot days will
increase over the 21st century on a global scale.

- It is “very likely” (90-100%
certainty) that the length, frequency and/or intensity of warm spells,
including heat waves, will continue to increase over most land areas.

- Peak temperatures are “likely”
(66-100% certainty) to increase — compared to the late 20th century — up to
3.0 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050, and 5.0 C (9.0 F) by

- Heavy rain and snowfall is likely to
increase, especially in the tropics and at high latitudes.

- At the same time, droughts will likely
intensify in the Mediterranean region, central Europe, North America,
northeastern Brazil and southern Africa.

- Rising and warming seas are also very
likely to boost the destructive power of cyclones, while melting glaciers and
permafrost, along with heavier precipitation, will trigger more landslides.

The Carnegie Institution’s Chris Field,
co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group 2, would not comment on the report’s
conclusions, but said they would help shape political choices.

“When the SREX is finalized and approved
by the world’s governments, it will provide a solid foundation for smart
policies on managing risks from climate extremes and climate-related
disasters,” he said by email.

The IPCC’s landmark Fourth Assessment in 2007
said global warming was “unequivocal” and that human activity was
almost certainly largely to blame.


Asia pays watery price for overdevelopment

By Denis D. Gray, Associated Press (25
October 2011)

As millions of urbanites living a modern
lifestyle fear that torrents of floodwater will rage through Thailand’s
capital, some in enclaves of a bygone era watch the rising waters with hardly a
worry — they live in old-fashioned houses perched on stilts with boats rather
than cars parked outside.

“No problem for them. They’ll be
safe,” says boatman Thongrat Sasai, plying his craft along some of the
remaining canals that once crisscrossed Bangkok, earning it a “Venice of
the East” moniker.

Like most of monsoon-swept Asia, the city and
its environs have experienced periodic floods since it was founded more than
two centuries ago. But recent decades have witnessed dramatic changes — from
intense urbanization to rising waters blamed on climate change — that are turning
once burdensome but bearable events into national crises.

“In a sense traditional society had an
easier coexistence with water and flooding,” says Aslam Perawaiz, an
expert at the Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. “Now, with
such rapid development there’s a much bigger problem.”

Across Asia, areas of high population density
are also those most prone to flooding and other water-related disasters,
according to an Associated Press analysis of recent U.N. maps. When overlaid,
the maps show such convergence in a wide arc from Pakistan and India, across
Southeast Asia, to China, the Philippines and Indonesia.

This isn’t mere bad luck. Historically,
agrarian societies settled in the continent’s great river basins, including the
Ganges in India, the Mekong in Southeast Asia and the Chao Phraya in Bangkok.
The gift of the rivers was fertile land, but it came at the price of almost
annual flooding during the monsoon rains.

By providing sufficient food for growing
populations, these rice bowls in turn spurred the rise of some of Asia’s
largest cities from Bangkok to Kolkata, India. The concentration of national
resources and wealth means even smaller disasters can have a big impact.

Severe flooding this year has killed more
than 1,000 people across Asia, and economic losses are running in the tens of
billions of dollars.

Thailand, suffering its worst flooding in 50
years, offers a prime example of the perils of centralization and man’s
fractured bonds to the natural environment. Floodwater has spilled into
outlying parts of Bangkok, and the government is scrambling to try to prevent
the inundation of the city center.

The basin of the Chao Phraya — the River of
Kings — and its headwaters in the north are home to 40 percent of the country’s
66 million people. Bangkok is Thailand’s industrial, financial, transportation
and cultural heart, contributing more than 65 percent of its gross domestic

Growth, outward and upward, has been
stunning. Bangkok’s greater metropolitan area now covers nearly 3,000 square
miles (more than 7,700 square kilometers) and continues to gnaw away at a
surrounding countryside that once acted as a natural drain for water from
northern mountain watersheds — themselves shedding more water because of
widespread deforestation.

Highways, suburban malls and industrial
parks, many now swamped and sustaining crippling losses, create dangerous
buildups of water or divert it into populated areas rather than along
traditional paths toward the Gulf of Thailand.

In Bangkok itself, streets where today’s
middle-aged residents used to play with water buffaloes as children are studded
with towering, cheek-by-jowl condominiums and office blocks. The ratios of
green space to population and area are among the lowest of any major city in
the world.

To this add extreme and erratic weather, said
to be triggered by climate change, which has increasingly buffeted Asian
countries with storms, typhoons and floods. These include ones such as Thailand
with a historically mild tropical climate.

Further, the legal and illegal pumping of
underground water faster than it can be replaced has compressed water-storing
aquifers, causing Bangkok to sink between 0.8 and 2 inches (2 to 5 centimeters)
each year. Scientists say the rise of waters in the nearby gulf as a result of
global warming could combine with the sinking land to put Bangkok under water
much of the time by mid-century.

Similar subsidence and seawater encroachment
is occurring in Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City and Manila, where a typhoon last
month triggered the worst flooding in the Philippine capital in decades.

Bangkok, some experts half-jokingly say, may
well return to what it was in the 19th century: a water world where almost all
its 400,000 inhabitants lived on raft-houses or homes on stilts. “The
highways of Bangkok are not streets or roads, but the river and the
canals,” wrote British envoy Sir John Browning in 1855.

A century later, on the advice of
international development agencies, Bangkok began to fill in most of its canals
— excellent conduits of floodwaters — to build more roads and combat malaria.

Sumet Jumsai, a prominent architect and
scholar, says that Bangkok’s early development “evolved with nature and
not against it.” But, he adds, by the early 1980s the city had become
“an alien organism unrelated to its background and surroundings, a great
concrete pad on partially filled land that … must succumb to the flood every

Dikes and drainage pipes have been built, but
nature appears to be keeping several steps ahead of manmade defenses.

“Of course this year the flood is maybe
too great to stop, but all in all it was better in the old days,” says
Phairat Klatlek, sitting atop a poorly erected concrete flood wall through
which water rushed into the first floor of her home. She and her electrician
husband, like most of their neighbors, had built a ground-hugging, modern house
along the Bangkok Noi canal.

Sumet is designing modern, functional
buildings, including a university campus, built on stilt columns and proposes a
revival of floating houses, promenades and markets.

“The underlying philosophy is the return
to living with nature like in Bangkok of yesteryear,” he says.

But Aslam, the disaster expert, says, “I
don’t think we can go back to living in harmony with nature as in the past.
What is now necessary is huge investments and long-term planning by governments
to mitigate such flooding.”

Associated Press writers Sopheng Cheang in
Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines; and Asia
interactive producer Pailin Wedel contributed to this report.


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