Preparation vital in coping with storms

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2007, 12:00am

Climate change as a result of environmental disregard is a reality, but should not be misused as an explanation for every case of extreme weather. Storms that have caused devastation in southern China and eastern Australia in recent days have occurred throughout recorded history.

The world's leaders have rightly accepted scientific evidence that emissions from power plants, factories and vehicles are causing global temperatures to rise and change weather patterns. Politicking, environmental concerns, films and books have further ensured the issue remains firmly at the top of the international agenda for action.

Pinning weather extremes on air pollution is, in such circumstances, easily done. Doing so can be simplistic, though.

Seasonal rains cause havoc across southern China every summer and rural communities, not protected by the levees that often hold back flood waters from cities, are most vulnerable. Australia, with 85 per cent of the population living in urban areas, is less prone to such devastation. But as the storm which struck the coast of the state of New South Wales at the weekend proves, even the best developed communities are not immune to the ravages of nature.

With much of the east of Australia in the grip of a drought for the past decade, dam-filling rains, not flash floods, were on peoples' minds. Such downpours accompanied by strong winds are unusual in the area that was affected, making residents even less prepared.

While there is no doubt that the world is getting hotter, causing the polar caps to melt and increasing the spread of deserts, scientists argue about whether climate change is also causing more severe or frequent storms. Written records over hundreds of years in southern China do not point to such a pattern.

It is important to take climate change - and the prospect of more extreme weather - seriously. But what is needed on the mainland to reduce the toll from storms is better infrastructure and warning systems. We have these in Hong Kong, which is why storms such as those of recent days have caused only minor flooding here, yet devastation across the border.

As the example of Australia shows, though, this is not in itself a safety net. The best way of minimising the impact is - as has always been the case - to be properly prepared.