Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 31 October 2011

Thai floods and global climate chaos

Blurb:  The floods in Thailand have devastated industries, reduced the rice crop, disrupted the daily life of people and serve as a reminder that global warming should be taken seriously. 


The seven billionth human being to occupy the present world will be born sometime this week, according to population experts.  And he or she will probably be an Asian, since this region is the most highly populated.
If that birth takes place in Thailand, the 7 billionth baby could well be born amidst flood waters.

Many parts of Thailand are already under water.  And we are witnessing on TV the slow but sure progress of the flood waters as they make their way from the Northern regions (in which the heavy rains fell) into the capital of Bangkok.

Floods in Bangkok have been expected for more than a week, as the waters have to pass through the capital on the way to the sea.

A growing number of districts in the capital has now been submerged or partially affected, with Central Bangkok remaining mainly dry last week, but may come under water this week.
The devastation that extensive floods can cause has been demonstrated yet again, this time with Thailand as the victim.  And it can happen to many other countries, so the lesson is that every nation must prepare itself to minimize and then cope with floods, the number and intensity of which have increased dramatically in recent years.

A quarter of Thailand’s rice crops may be affected, according to government estimates, with effects on incomes of millions of farmers, and which may drive up the price of Thai rice sold to so many other countries.

Seven industrial estates, that house hundreds of factories, have been submerged by water, rendering 650,000 workers jobless, at least temporarily.

But this has global significance as well, since Thailand is a global manufacturing hub.  The floods have disrupted multinational companies’ supply chains, especially in electronics and the auto industries.

Japanese car makers like Toyota and Honda whose factories were shut down by the floods are unable to supply car parts to their plants in other parts of the world.   Thailand is the world’s top supplier of hard disk drives, and the closure of factories has disrupted supplies to companies like Lenovo and Samsung, dampening the sales of their computers.

The Thai economy is badly affected.  Tens of billions of dollars have been lost through the industrial stoppage.  Another 50 billion baht is lost through the decline in tourism. A few percentage points may be shaven off the GNP growth rate.

Thailand is by no means the only country affected.  Many other countries have been affected by heavy rains and floods this year.

Pakistan is experiencing floods for the second year running, with 5 million people in need of food, shelter and clean water.  The Central American countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize as well as parts of the United States, and Queensland, have also been affected.

Climate scientists are reluctant to link each of the floods directly to climate change, as this is hard to prove.  But there is a general belief that global warming contributes to the increased incidence of flooding.

A scientist at the World Meteorological Organisation last year explained how the warming of the oceans increased cloud formation and contributed to the devastating Pakistan floods.

Dublin was affected by flash floods earlier this year.  An Irish newspaper, linking it to climate change, cited a flood risk management report of the Office of Public Works in 2009 which claimed that “the frequency, pattern and severity of flooding are expected to increase as a result of climate change.”

Meanwhile, a United Kingdom government-linked report released last week described how climate change is likely to create hundreds of millions of refugees around the world as they try to escape from areas affected by global warming.

The refugees may have to move from their homes as climate change induces events such as floods, droughts, storms, and heatwaves, according to the Foresight group, part of the U.K. Office for Science.

However, many of these refugees may move into even worse affected areas, such as coastal areas that are vulnerable to floods from storms and sea level rise.

The floods and the sobering predictions on climate refugees are sober reminders that political leaders need to take global warming more seriously.  The interest to act globally on climate change has waned in the past two years.

The Durban conference of the UN Climate Change Convention, that will start at the end of November, is an occasion to revive the global commitment to combat global warming.