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Asian Killer Floods Magnified By Damaged Ecosystems

August 20, 2010

Changes in climate may be a partial cause to the record rainfall that is wreaking havoc in Asia, but environmental experts say the destruction of ecosystems is more directly at fault for the severity of killer floods.

The devastating floods are becoming worse because of several factors, including deforestation, conversion of wetlands into farmlands and urban centers and the clogging of natural drainage systems, experts warn.

“You can’t just blame nature… humans have encroached on the natural flood plains,” said Ganesh Pangare, Bangkok-based regional water and wetlands coordinator with the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Better management of flood plains would limit the human and economic costs of natural disasters, such as the record rains in Pakistan recently, said Pangare.

The natural infrastructure is important and must be protected, “otherwise development in Asia is not sustainable,” he said.

Red Constantino, head of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities in Manila, said climate change is becoming a convenient way for Asian leaders to place blame elsewhere when natural disasters strike.

“When there is any big flooding it’s become commonplace for climate change to be blamed when in fact many of the problems are fixable at the local level,” said Constantino.

“Whether you are in Jakarta or Bangkok or Manila you have a basic issue with bad waste management, bad land management and urban sprawl,” he added.

The devastation that occurred in Manila last year when Tropical Storm Ketsana dropped the largest amount of rains in four decades on the Philippine capital, submerged eighty percent of the city at the height of the flooding and more than 400 people died.

Then president Gloria Arroyo placed the blame for the severity of the storm on climate change, however, a host of more direct human factors were to blame for the massive death toll.

According to Constantino, millions of people who built homes along flood plains in recent decades, the destruction of upstream forests and garbage that clogged waterways all magnified the disaster.

One of the major magnifiers of flood disasters has been the destruction of forests, according to Bruce Dunn, environmental specialist with the Asian Development Bank’s Regional and Sustainable Development Department.

He pointed to a study by Australia’s Charles Darwin University and the National University of Singapore that found a 10 percent decrease in forests led to the frequency of floods rising by between four and 28 percent.

However, Dunn expressed, amid the seemingly inevitable path towards ever-worsening damage of Asia’s ecosystems, there have been some examples of improvement.

China began massive reforestation efforts after the country was hit by massive flooding in the 1980s.

“At the time there were huge levels of deforestation and almost overnight there was a very rapid policy change,” Dunn said. “Now, in terms of forest cover, Asia has had some increases because of reforestation in China.”

Ganesh Pangare echoed this theme, saying investment in “natural infrastructure” was the only way to protect people from the impacts of potential climate change-induced floods.

Building walls to stop the floods is not the answer. “You have to invest in natural infrastructure — forests, river basins, lakes, wetlands,” he said.

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