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Notes from hot Asia

A Mekong woman amidst the desert around what was once a verdant river bank in a photograph by Peter ter Weeme

Putu, a local village guide in Keliki, Bali, stops to mop his brow and sighs, “It’s hotter than I can remember.” He takes another few steps and turns, “We’re just not used to it. The seasons seem to be all mixed up.”  

It’s another steamy day in Bali and difficult to see where exactly the rice paddies end and the sky begins. The horizon is merely a blurry line lost in the haze of heat. As he tramps along a muddy path in the rice field, Putu carries a cloth to wipe his glistening face and neck. He’s used to the heat but  today is too much for him to bear.

Yes, it’s May, the so-called “dry season” in Bali, but it’s anything but dry this year. Rain has fallen almost everyday for the past three weeks. The island’s climate has been organized around the rhythm of wet months and dry ones, but this year it’s definitely topsy-turvy. Putu, 35, trudges along a muddy path in the rice field as he talks about how the weather has changed. He’s no scientist but he is in tune with his environment. Nature, he concludes, is confused.

“When I was a kid, we used to head into the rice fields for the day without sun tan lotion. Now, we can barely stand the sun in the afternoon. After a couple of hours, we go inside for a break because our skin hurts so much,” he says. His voice is steady but you can hear the fear. He talks about seedlings that die from the heat, about shortages of water and then flash floods that come from nowhere. Some of these patterns were always there but now they’re magnified and grotesque, like the muscles of a bodybuilder on steroids.

And while he doesn’t understand the intricacies of climate science, Putu’s observations are backed up by the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) in Jakarta. According to their climate scientists, global warming has triggered several anomalies including rising sea levels and increased sea surface temperatures. It’s led to unpredictable rainfall that bears no resemblance to normal patterns.

All over Asia, the effects of climate change are being felt on the ground. After interviewing dozens locals in Vietnam, Laos, India, Bhutan and Indonesia, I've found no one who has refuted the fact that the climate is different than it was 20 short years ago. And none of them are disputing that humans are causing it.

Over in India, Delhi has just finished its hottest April in 52 years. May has been a record-breaker too. Throughout Rajasthan, the state southwest of Delhi, water issues are at critical levels. It’s not just a recent phenomenon either – drought has ravaged the state for the past 10 years, withering crops, drying up wells and virtually roasting cattle before they are even butchered.

One telling example of the drought is occurring in Udaipur, a beautiful, historical city that lies amongst centuries-old man-made lakes created by various maharajas. Udaipur has been called the City of Lakes. It’s a misnomer now.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Octopussy, you’ll remember James Bond speeding across a gorgeous blue lake with a wedding cake palace in the background. That was Lake Pichola in Udaipur. Shockingly, the lake is now almost dry and has been for a few years. The rains don’t come anymore, and under the searing sun and growing population, the demand for water is too great.

Today, instead of an azure lake set against the arid Rajasthani mountains, you’ll find a toxic concentration of green sludge and a faint ring around the shore to mark the former waterline. It looks like the residue left behind from after a good scrub in the bathtub. But it smells much worse.

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