South-East Asia braces for La Nina floods

Udomsuk Udompaiboon points to the fence around his house, at a long, faded brown line higher than his shoulder. “You see? That is what the floods did last time," he said.

Udomsuk, who lives in Nonthaburi, north of Bangkok, was one of millions of Thais harshly affected by the 2011 floods, which caused more than 45 billion dollars in damages, according to the World Bank.

After a hot season punctuated by drought warnings during the El Nino weather pattern, Thais are worried that La Nina may bring too much rain in the coming months.

"I don’t know what will happen if it floods again," Udomsuk said. "We live on a flood plain. I hope the government has plans for La Nina. We know what happened last time."

Thailand has historically caught only the edge of the storms brought by La Nina, and the country estimates only a 40 per cent chance of being hit this year, according to Chalalai Jampon, the Director of the Thai Government’s Climate Centre.

Other South-East Asian nations are taking more precautions.

In Malaysia, Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said flooding from La Nina could hit most of the peninsular part of the country, as well as the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak.

"We need to study and come up with plans," he told a press conference.

Urban development has aggravated the flood risk, he said, and "developers should share the responsibility.”

The fire and rescue department has deployed resources to flood-prone areas, its director general said.

“We are working closely with the meteorological department, which will give us forecasts weeks ahead,” Wan Mohamad Nor Ibrahim said.

The Indonesian government has expressed concern that La Nina could hurt food security for the whole year and possibly longer.

"While Indonesia has strong capacity and expertise for responding to rapid-onset emergencies, it is far more challenging to respond to slow-onset emergencies," said a United Nations-sponsored report.

The situation should be closely monitored for any humanitarian needs, including a "longer-term rise in poverty levels," it said.

Urban planning expert Marco Kusumawijaya warned La Nina could worsen seasonal flooding in Jakarta and cause landslides elsewhere. 

"Jakarta is already under water after a few hours of rain, let alone during La Nina," he said. The government needs to work harder on finding solutions, “because we are racing against time,” he said.

In the Philippines, La Nina could trigger heavy rains and flooding in at least 15 provinces, according to authorities. “La Nina Watch is now in effect,” said Vicente Malano, acting administrator of the Philippine’s weather bureau.

Anthony Lucero, chief of the weather bureau’s Climate Monitoring and Prediction section, warned that the weather pattern “could enhance rainy seasons in December, January and February."

"We have to be vigilant and take some precautionary measures, especially in flood-prone areas.”

The threat from La Nina warrants dipping into government funds set aside for disaster preparedness and climate adaptation, according to Philippine Senator Loren Legarda.

“Agencies of government, both national and local, must work together to help communities projected to be hit,” she said.

“De-silting and dredging of rivers, canals and drainage systems should already be under way to reduce or prevent flooding."

In Thailand, the authorities are less alarmed.

“Even if La Nina were to occur, Thailand is in a good geographical position far away from where it impacts the most,” the Climate Centre's Chalalai said. “In 2011, the flooding was not due to La Nina but a mismanagement of dams by the authorities."

Experts were not convinced that Thailand would escape the problems.

“We have to remember that with these climate conditions, the poor and disaffected are the ones that are hit the hardest,” said Tara Buakamsri, Thailand country director for Greenpeace International.

“And until we address the issue of climate change, these extreme weather conditions will only get worse.”

Last update: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 11:33
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