A changing climate throws water out of balance in Asia and the Pacific

With a warming climate in parts of the Himalayas, melting glaciers are feeding into glacial lakes that threaten to burst at the seams. Photo: UNDP

Every morning I jump on the Chao Phraya Express Boat to get to work. It’s a short trip, but on yet another sultry morning in Bangkok, it’s nice to feel the breeze as we slice through the muddy waters to Thewet Pier, a short walk from my office at the United Nations.

As we churn upriver, I’m often reminded of the suggestion that our planet should have been named Water instead of Earth. Nowhere is this idea more true than in Asia and the Pacific.

While some 4.5 billion people make their homes on solid ground here – about 60 percent of the world’s population – it’s also home to the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and dozens of major river basins (such as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong and Yangtze) that gave rise to the varied and colourful cultures of Asia.

Water in the oceans is the source of life and livelihoods for the inhabitants of tens of thousands of islands from the Maldives in the east, through the archipelagos of Indonesia and the Philippines, all the way to the Pacific island states of Fiji, Samoa and many others in the west.

Water in the mountains, in the form of glaciers on the slopes and towering peaks of the Himalayas, has been called the “Water Tower of Asia,” feeding river basins that are home to 1.3 billion people.

But with climate change, more and more of this water is finding itself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in late 2013, was the strongest and deadliest typhoon in that country ever, killing more than 6,000 people and causing US$2.8 billion in damages. Cyclone Pam, which struck Vanuatu in March 2015, was one of the most intense storms ever recorded in the southern Pacific and one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit that island nation.

In other parts of Asia, severe floods hit China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2015. Flooding proved to be the most common type of disaster that year and affected more people (21.7 million) and caused more economic damage ($11.5 billion) than any other type of disaster.

Even the “Water Tower of Asia” is becoming a threat. With a warming climate in parts of the Himalayas, many glaciers are in retreat. As they melt, they feed a growing number of glacial lakes that threaten to burst at the seams. By 2010 more than 200 of the more than 8,000 lakes in the Himalayas were identified as potential threats for “glacial lake outburst floods” or GLOFs.

And let’s not forget the most dramatic threat of all: the existential threat that sea-level rise poses to many island nations. Under the worst case scenario where sea levels could rise by as much as 98 cm by the end of the century, many atoll island nations (such as the Maldives, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu) will struggle to cope and survive.

So climate change is bringing too much water to many parts of Asia and the Pacific.

Sadly, at the other end of the spectrum, many other parts are now suffering from not enough water. The El Niño that began in 2014 has brought weak monsoon seasons to South and South-East Asia. More than 20 million people were affected in 2015. India was perhaps hit the hardest with some 19 million hectares of cropland affected by drought.

So what to do? UNDP is helping on all fronts.

Following the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) that was held in Japan in March 2015, UNDP and Tohoku teamed up to launch the Global Centre for Disaster Statistics. This centre will help generate the scientific evidence needed to better integrate DRR into development planning. That in turn will help reduce the impact of future disasters.

In Bhutan and Pakistan, UNDP has supported projects responding to the threat of glacial lake outburst floods. The Pakistan project in particular has been selected for follow up with a new $37 million grant from the Green Climate Fund for GLOF risk reduction in northern Pakistan.

Through UNDP, the Green Climate Fund is also supporting the Maldives with a $23.6 million grant to support vulnerable communities to manage climate-induced water shortages; and Tuvalu with a $36 million grant to reduce the risk of inundation through a range of measures including strengthened eco-systems, beach nourishment, and concrete and rock revetments.

UNDP has played a key role in supporting the broader United Nations in helping countries respond to El Niño. Our view is that investing in development and resilience planning will help avoid future humanitarian crises.

There is much work to be done.

As I ride the boat home again tonight, I notice that the water is higher than normal. It sloshes over the banks, and someone has laid down a line of sandbags leading from the pier to help keep our feet dry. Too much water or too little, climate change is bound to exacerbate the challenges here in Asia.

Are we up to the challenge? I’m confident we are as long as we keep up the effort and look beyond the horizon and consider the world not just in our lives but for the many, many generations that will follow.

Text by Gordon Johnson, Resilience and Sustainability Team Leader, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub / Retrieved from UNDP