Science and Development Network (SciDevNet)
South-East Asia has suffered from neglecting planning for disasters. Governments must heed the warnings and act now, argues Crispin Maslog.
In the closing months of 2011, flash floods caused by the wayward Pacific typhoon, Washi, swept some 1,500 people to their deaths overnight and left at least 2,000 missing in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Typhoons strike Mindanao very rarely, every 40 years or so. But when it hit Mindanao this time, it lashed with a vengeance. The newspaper reports were dramatic, painting a vivid picture where "swaths of impoverished urban settlements mainly from the hard-hit cities . . . disappeared in the deadly brown torrents of slime and mud".
And in Thailand, a deluge in October triggered by the northeast monsoons was the country's worst in half a century. It inundated 65 of Thailand's 77 provinces, including Bangkok, drowned at least 800 people and unsettled more than 12 million others. The World Bank estimated damage at 1.4tn baht (US$44.8 billion), making it one of the costliest disasters in human history.
The floods that inundated not only the Philippines and Thailand but also Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and most of South-East Asia towards the end of 2011 are not only a sign of things to come, but a warning that governments need to act now — with a serious and sound approach to planning.
Disaster waiting to happen
The sad truth is that the deaths and devastation could have been minimised if governments and international agencies had heeded early warnings.
The flash floods that struck the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in Mindanao were a disaster waiting to happen. Three years ago, the Philippine Imperative for Climate Change (PICC), World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines (WWF) and Filipino scientists simulated the effects of extreme weather phenomena linked to climate change.
The simulation findings were shown to Philippine lawmakers in 2009 and to newly elected Philippine President Benigno Aquino III when he assumed office in 2010. But the government dismissed the warnings as "too alarmist", according to the PICC.
The shortcomings in preparedness were matched by deficiencies in response. In Thailand, environmental watchdogs have challenged the government to take responsibility for reacting too slowly to the disaster. "The blame for the floods is 30 per cent with nature and 70 per cent with the mismanagement of the authorities," said a representative of Thailand's Stop Global Warming Association.
And what is worrying is that this series of emergencies is only the beginning of what climate change scientists predict will be more frequent and severe extreme weather events in parts of South-East Asia.
In the Philippines, this will mean more intense winds and rains from typhoons, more floods and more severe landslides. Scientists are predicting similar impacts across the region, warning of more floods precipitated by uncontrolled urban growth in Asia's low-lying coastal cities, sea level rise, more violent storms and storm surges.
A tipping point?
So how do countries deal with this problem? Up to now it seems that most South-East Asian governments have been reactive, rather than proactive, in dealing with natural disasters.
The public and policymakers have been convinced that the solution is to reduce the causes of climate change: cut down on carbon emissions that destroy the ozone layer, for example, reduce air pollution or switch to green energy. These are all actions led by the world's powerful nations and this has been the traditional wisdom.
But we may have reached a tipping point. The recent disasters suggest that South-East Asia is beginning to suffer more severe consequences from neglecting planning and responding reactively.
Science may soon come to the rescue with a system to predict extreme weather events faster and more accurately. For example, researchers are developing an "ensemble method" of predicting tropical cyclones, droughts and floods, which uses multiple models to yield an average forecast up to 10 to 15 days in advance.
But sound urban planning is key. South-East Asian cities are expanding at an uncontrolled pace, and slums are growing along sea coasts and river banks, which are the areas most vulnerable to floods. Governments must find ways to manage this urban growth.
And they need to improve the management of water supplies for irrigation, industry and household needs. South-East Asian countries have built dams to store water in the rainy season that can then be used in the dry season. But keeping reservoirs full can be disastrous when heavy rains come, and excess water needs to be released despite flooding.
This may have contributed to the recent floods in Thailand, which came a year after the country was hit by drought. A similar scenario occurred in the Philippines a few months before typhoon Washi — three earlier typhoons caused flooding in central Luzon, north of Manila, not only from heavy rains but from water released from nearby dams.
Governments must systematically apply knowledge from scientific research to better prepare for and cope with disasters. And they must do more to deal with the consequences of intense floods by putting in place evacuation plans, for example, or helping those who have lost their homes.
They must be proactive rather than reactive to the floods and other disasters. Climate change is not a future problem. It is a problem now.
Crispin Maslog, based in Manila, Philippines, is a consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, journalism professor and environmental activist, he was science writer for the Press Foundation of Asia and communication consultant for the International Rice Research Institute.