Climate-change plans can no longer be put off

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am


The recent tropical storm that hit the southern Philippines, killing more than 1,200 people at the last count, was exacerbated by a combination of factors. Foreign observers have noted that the disaster was reminiscent of the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami.

However, in this instance, the 10-metre wall of water came not from the sea but from the Cagayan River, which overflowed with rainwater from surrounding denuded mountains. Those not killed by the flash floods were killed or injured by cut logs washed down by the water.

The fact that the storm passed through this area at this time of the year - an unusual occurrence - may well be a result of climate change. But what also spelled disaster were the illegal logging and mining activities, and the fact that settlements had been built in ecologically hazardous areas and forest cover had been stripped for pineapple agriculture. There was also a lack of proper warning.

Particularly instructive was the admission by the government that officials had been too busy fighting corruption to pay heed to the warnings of a climate-change group to respond to the danger of flash floods in low-lying areas teeming with illegal settlements. It seems that the perception remains that freak weather events are issues for some time in the future.

For some, only when such freak weather disturbances become the norm will they believe climate change is upon us. Unfortunately, by then it will be too late. Instead of being occasional inconveniences, powerful freak storms will have become the norm, and they will kill large numbers of people and cause widespread property damage.

Science says that with a temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius, water vapour in the air increases. This traps more heat, increasing the power of storms both in terms of wind and rainfall. This is a big threat for many low-lying Asian coastal towns and cities.

Adapting our towns and cities to this threat may mean removing illegal settlers in ecologically hazardous zones, reforesting mountains that lead to our streams and rivers, removing silt from rivers and unclogging sewers and storm drains, and having a quick emergency evacuation plan that everyone knows by heart. In short, co-ordinated, not scattered, efforts will be needed to face the kind of extreme weather threats we are seeing now.

Unless local (and not just national) governments in Asia take seriously the threat to their own communities of frequent and powerful climate-change-driven events, we will see the same comedy of errors that resulted in the hundreds of deaths in the Philippines repeat across Asia. And it won't be funny.

Dennis Posadas blogs about clean energy and climate at