Saturday, August 21, 2010

Damaged ecosystems magnify Asia's killer floods
by Karl Malakunas, Agence France Presse

MANILA, Aug 19, 2010 (AFP) - Climate change may be playing a part in record rains ravaging Asia but environment experts say the destruction of ecosystems is more directly to blame for the severity of killer floods.

Widespread deforestation, the conversion of wetlands to farms or urban sprawl and the clogging up of natural drainage systems with garbage are just some of the factors exacerbating the impacts of the floods, they say.

"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.

Pangare said better management of flood plains would limit the human and economic costs of natural disasters, such as the recent record rains in Pakistan that killed an estimated 1,400 people.

"You have to ensure that natural infrastructure is protected. Otherwise development in Asia is not sustainable," he said.

Red Constantino, the Manila-based head of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, said climate change was becoming a convenient way for Asian leaders to excuse themselves when natural disasters struck.

"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."

Constantino referred to last year's devastation in Manila when Tropical Storm Ketsana dumped the heaviest rains in four decades on the Philippine capital.

Eighty percent of the city was submerged at the height of the flooding and more than 400 people died.

But although then president Gloria Arroyo highlighted climate change as at fault for the severity of the storm, a host of more direct human factors were to blame for the massive death toll.

Millions of people who built homes along flood plains in recent decades, the destruction of upstream forests and a proliferation of garbage that clogged up waterways all magnified the disaster, according to Constantino.

"Metro Manila is having to deal with the consequences of really bad planning," he said, pointing out the disaster did not lead to any major changes in the city's urban management policies.

Bruce Dunn, an environment specialist with the Asian Development Bank's Regional and Sustainable Development Department, said the destruction of forests across Asia was one of the major magnifiers of flood disasters.

He referred 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.

But, amid a seemingly inexorable path towards ever-worsening damage of Asia's ecosystems, Dunn said there were some examples of improvements.

He pointed to China's reforestation efforts, which began after the country was hit by massive floods 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."

Pangare, from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 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 concrete and walls to stop the floods is not the answer," he said.

"You have to invest in natural infrastructure -- forests, river basins, lakes, wetlands." #

Photo by AFP.


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