Pakistan floods show Asia’s vulnerability to climate change

October 11, 2011

By Lord Julian Hunt and Professor J. Srinivasan. The opinions expressed are their own.

It is more than a year since the devastating July and August 2010 floods in Pakistan that affected about 20 million people and killed an estimated 2,000. Many believe that the disaster was partially fuelled by global warming, and that there is a real danger that Pakistan, and the Indian subcontinent in general, could become the focus of much more regular catastrophic flooding.

Indeed, right now Pakistan is again experiencing massive flooding.  The UN asserts that, already, more than 5.5 million people have been affected and almost 4300 are officially reported dead, 100 of them children.

Last year’s calamity, in particular, highlights the  vulnerability of much of Asia to climate change, and has helped elevate this into one of the most important and pressing political and social issues in the region. Indeed, an increasingly prevailing view is that the impact of climate change could be worse in the region than all previous social, health and conflict disasters of the past.

In particular, there is growing recognition that global warming is dangerously linked to several significant threats, including not just natural disasters, but also energy, water, and food shortages as average rising temperatures reduce productivity and agricultural land is threatened by sea level rises and salinification of coastal areas.

Following the combination of last year’s Pakistani floods, and the exceptional heat waves in Russia, there is also now greater understanding in the region about the links between continental-scale weather events, and hence global risks to food availability. These linkages are likely to be exacerbated by adjustments in the patterns of atmosphere and ocean movements.

Reflecting this heightened concern, Asian prime ministers, legislators and business leaders are increasingly supporting new climate-related legislation, investments and research.  They are also leveraging their growing influence at the United Nations to help secure a comprehensive, global warming deal.

This significant shift in Asian elite opinion has occurred despite the fact that it is now largely acknowledged within the region as unrealistic to expect total emissions from developed countries to be significantly reduced over the next few decades. Disappointment is often expressed, in particular, that the United States and Canada have no effective plans to follow European Union countries and Australia in introducing effective measures to make reductions.

There are numerous specific ways in which this “Asian consensus” on climate change is manifesting itself across the region.

First, low-lying islands and coastal areas. The great concern of these terrains – some of which are threatened by rising sea levels,  combined with increasing frequency of the intense rainfall  and the occasional typhoon and tsunami  – is leading affected countries to play a very active role in international negotiations. Singapore has even instituted a climate change secretariat in its Prime Minister’s Office.

Moreover, there is considerable momentum to find new technical solutions. In Bangalore, for instance, companies are solving acute water shortages by hi-tech recycling and restoring depleted aquifers from the still plentiful monsoon rains.

Second, continental-scale Asian countries. Countries such as India and China, with dense centres of population and growing megacities, are thinking very seriously about responses to dangerous rises in temperature. In China, for instance, there has been a rise in temperature of two degrees Celsius since 1950, and the rise is anticipated to be greater than four degrees by 2100 if global emissions continue on predicted trends. To help prevent the looming problems associated with this, Beijing is harnessing new technologies to set ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions per unit of energy supplied by 40-45 percent by 2020.

Within such continental-scale Asian economies, requirements for energy and food are increasing rapidly as standards of living grow. In India, these two requirements are competing with each other in some areas where large power stations, coal mining and biomass projects all take land from farmers, threatening food supplies and local political stability.

But this problem is being mitigated by clean energy systems, such as wind power and the use of desert areas for direct solar production. Such projects are attracting international investment and funds for innovation.

Third, forests. Forests in Asia have been of concern since the 1920s when the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore raised the alarm. Now the monitoring, conserving and responsible utilisation of forests is being regulated through national legislation, combined with the international funding arrangements of a UN programme to cut emissions resulting from deforestation in developing countries.

Politicians in the region increasingly realise that deforestation has devastating short-term impacts on rainfall reduction and lowering agricultural productivity, and also on health because of air pollution. These impacts can cross land and sea boundaries. Fortunately, areas of forest in India and China are now increasing again, although dense forest areas are still threatened in other Asian countries.

As encouraging as many of these initiatives are, the scale of the challenge means that debate in Asia is also turning to whether there are acceptable low-risk geo-engineering solutions to climate change. In a recent Indo-German experiment in the Indian Ocean, iron particles were released to increase absorption of carbon dioxide, but so far without success. Teams are also planning experiments to release droplets high in the stratosphere to cut solar radiation.

The International Maritime Organisation is meeting to consider a trial on the release of iron particles.  This brings to the fore the question of which international organisations should accept responsibility for regulating geo-engineering. Indeed, many in Asia already believe that wholly new approaches to international governance will be needed to obtain a consensus in the region to tackle these unprecedented challenges.

Lord Julian Hunt is Vice Chair of Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment, and visiting professor at Delft University of Technology and the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre, Cambridge. Professor J. Srinivasan is chairman of the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Image — In this image taken on August 7, 2010, marooned flood victims, including boy Mohammed Farhan, aged about 12, and Allah Dita, aged about 64, look to escape by grabbing onto the side bars of a hovering army helicopter which arrived to the village of Daya Chokha Gharbi to distribute cooked chick peas and rice to flood victims in Kot Adu located in southern Punjab’s Muzaffargarh district. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

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