Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Climate change takes its toll in Asia

As torrential rains continue to sweep across South China and Bangladesh, Sir David King, the UK government's chief scientist told a committee of MPs that global warming has already altered the climate and the country will have to prepare for extreme weather such as heat waves and "torrential downpours". Flash floods in Britain are likely to be the biggest immediate problem caused by climate change, he warned. In China, roads have been turned into rushing rivers, flooding cities, towns and villages in the provinces of Hunan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Jiangxi and Fujian. The death toll has risen to at least 76 and three-quarters of a million people have been forced from their homes, with rain forecast to continue to the end of the week. Nine million people are affected by the worst flooding in 50 years. In some areas the torrential rain has triggered land and mudslides, destroying crops, roads and houses. Meanwhile, some northern regions of China are being hit by heatwaves, with temperatures in parts likely to reach 40 degrees. And to add to the country’s predicament, the glaciers which feed China's great waterways, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, are beginning to melt. The Chinese government says the glacier area around Mount Everest has shrunk by some 21%. In the short term, glacier melt will increase flooding downstream, but in the long term it will lead to drought as the source of the great rivers of Asia dries up.

In Bangladesh, predicted to be among the countries worst affected by global warming, heavy rain caused further havoc in the port city of Chittagong on Tuesday where rescuers have recovered at least 87 bodies but more feared missing following the biggest storm in decades. Officials and witnesses said the deaths were caused mostly by landslides and the collapse of ramshackle dwellings in the city of nearly 5 million. The flooding was so extensive that survivors were having difficulty finding dry ground to bury the dead. A Chittagong survivor said Monday's landslides struck so quickly that nobody had time to react. "The hills just came crushing down on us," one said. "It looks like we are living in a ghost city," a rescuer said. "Never before in my life have I confronted such a calamity," said another. Millions living on the banks of other rivers are also threatened. In Australia, where the ‘thousand-year’ drought led Prime Minister John Howard to threaten a ban on irrigation for farming and to ‘hope and pray for rain’ in April, a major storm has battered the east coast for days, causing the worst flooding in the Hunter Valley for 30 years, beaching a coal ship and flooding coastal towns. In Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, temperatures have risen and glaciers are melting - causing floods, pollution, disease, landslides and migration. Tajik glaciers provide water for the whole of Central Asia.

Just in case you think this is someone else’s problem, a report this week said London’s flood defences would only cope for another 20 years and that £20 billion would have to be spent to keep rising sea levels at bay. In the meantime, having announced the world’s highest profits earlier this year, Exxonmobil continues to fund the climate change denial industry - to the tune of $22 million since 1998. And while the rest of us are trying to reduce energy use, the company is counting on global oil consumption rising by 50% by 2030. Despite all the talk at the G8 and elsewhere, there can be no action on climate change until the grip of the corporations is broken.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

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