Notes from hot Asia

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Uday, a local guide, comments how the five lakes surrounding the city are all at record low levels. “The last big rain came in 2006 but now they grow vegetables on the lake bed with what moisture remains. We are all hopeful the rains will return. What tourist wants to come to see this?” he laments as he gestures at the empty lakebed. His voice is heavy with resignation.

Meanwhile, in Laos, boat traffic on the Lower Mekong River was suspended three months ago due to a dramatic drop in the water level. It is below 1993 levels, which followed the most extreme regional drought on record.

This year’s low water levels are the result of conditions in Northern Thailand and Laos, and are part of a wider regional drought being experienced upstream in Yunnan Province in China. The 2009 flood season was drier than normal with wet season river levels in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, among some of the lowest on record in the last 100 years.

This lack of water is creating regional tensions around water management. It’s also making life difficult for the subsistence farmers and fishers who rely on the water for their livelihood. Living on a knife-edge, just one bad season can generate devastating impacts and personal economic ruin. The people here don’t have the luxury of savings to cushion the losses and their governments lack cash and capacity to provide relief.

Tourism has frequently been fingered as an economic saviour. However, it too is not immune to the vagaries of a changing climate.

“One of the cruise boats that plies the upper Mekong broke up on the rocks earlier this season,” offers Myriam, a French hostess on a lower Mekong ship. “The captain hadn’t realized just how shallow the river had become. Passengers had to be evacuated but fortunately there were no casualties.” Immediately following the incident, all fast and slow boats on the river were suspended until further notice. More jobs were put in jeopardy.

These stories of climate change are but a drop in the proverbial bucket, and they have a sad irony to them. Our lifestyles, our privileged position, our arrogance has created climate change. Yet, it’s the poorest, least resilient people in developing countries that are bearing the most dramatic social, environmental and economic costs.

In dozens of conversations about changes in that region’s climate, the only suggestion that climate change is either imagined, trumped up or a hoax is voiced by European and American tourists. Whether it’s a Dutch executive at Shell or Republican seniors who live on a golf course in Pennsylvania, they’re enjoying Asian vacations made less threatening thanks to their comfortable blinders and convenient explanations.

These travellers are resolute in their belief that this is all part of the planet’s natural climate variability. Indeed, they suggest that the fact that we’ve never had such high concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere is mere fear-mongering and has no relevance. Are they ignorant or is it just easier to deny responsibility? After all, who wants to be reminded that the carbon footprint of their flight is far greater than that of an entire Asian village?

The future impacts of climate change globally remain uncertain but each new piece of data confirms that it’s not likely to be pretty. That prognosis is all too evident to many Asians already. Just ask them.

Mekong River bed, drying up.  Photo by Peter ter Weeme.

And in India...




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