Climate change

Are natural disasters man-made? It’s hard to deny when the effects of climate change are all around us

Andrew Sheng says that from increasingly intense hurricanes to regional landslides and flooding, it’s clear our actions are effecting the environment. But, it’s also evident that there are ways for us to avert disaster and change course

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 November, 2017, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 November, 2017, 7:06pm

After Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma hit the United States, followed by Maria hitting Puerto Rico, no one can deny natural disasters are devastating. With three hurricanes costing more than US$300 billion worth of damage, the poor suffer the most because they cannot afford to rebuild, like the rich can.

But how many of these natural disasters are man-made?

Despite US President Donald Trump being sceptical of climate change, the US Global Change Research Programme Climate Science Report published this month concludes that “it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.

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Carbon dioxide concentrations already exceeds 400 parts per million, which last occurred about 3 million years ago, when both average temperatures and sea levels were significantly higher.

Roughly one-third of carbon emissions are due to residential heating/cooling, one-third transport and one-third industrial production.

Scientists estimate that, on average, global sea levels have risen about 18-20cm since 1900, with almost half of that occurring since 1993. Climate warming is most observable in the water-stressed Middle East and North Africa, where rapid population growth has created desertification, food shortages, civil conflicts and, ultimately, migration to cooler climates, especially Europe. This hot region accounts for 60 per cent of global war casualties since 2000, with 10 million refugees.

European estimates suggest that each refugee costs roughly US$11,600 to maintain and there were already 1 million trying to enter Europe last year.

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The world is reaching a critical turning point. If the Paris Climate Accord can be implemented, with or without the United States, there is some chance of averting further global warming.

But, closer to home, we are already witnessing the effects of climate change.

In 1972, Hong Kong experienced a series of devastating landslides, including one near Po Shan Road, causing 67 deaths. One cause was unstable ground following heavy rainfall from Typhoon Rose a year earlier.

This tragedy resulted in rigorous slope protection and inspection of drains. I lived near Po Shan Road and admired how engineers regularly inspected slope protection measures and drains.

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In 1993, the collapse of Highland Towers in Kuala Lumpur was partly attributed to clearing the hilltop above the apartment buildings, leading to soil erosion and weakening of the foundations. By the time the residents detected cracks in the buildings, it was too late. Some of my friends were among the 48 who were killed in the tragedy.

Last weekend, Penang (where I live) had a severe rainstorm and flooding, hit by the tail end of strong winds from Typhoon Damrey. Driving along Penang Bridge, I can see that continued hilltop development is leaving scars on the previously pristine landscape, and am reminded of the Highland Towers and Po Shan incidents.

Soil erosion does not happen overnight, and requires responsible developers, conscientious governments and concerned citizens to be vigilant about the maintenance of roads and drains, including soil inspections.

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Modern technology can provide drones and inbuilt sensors to detect whether erosion is reaching critical levels.

Regular maintenance of drains and checks on soil stability, especially where there has been recent clearing of trees on steep slopes, will warn us of any impending accidents.

As cities build more and more on hillsides subject to torrential rain, Penang should seek technical expertise from Hong Kong, which has extensive knowledge about the maintenance of steep slopes that are subject to typhoons and sudden rainfall.

Landslides are today often seen in political terms rather than in real terms. The next time a landslide happens, residents who have watched on a daily basis the erosion of their natural environment will know who is really looking after their interests.

Andrew Sheng writes on global affairs from an Asian perspective