How reconnecting with nature can help us cope with floods

Catastrophic rains, urban flooding and warmer temperatures are forecasted for Southeast Asia in the next few decades. Is the region prepared? Water experts suggest that reconnecting with nature is one key way to cope.

Baby of unspecified gender cools off in Bishan Park
A toddler cools off in a stream in Bishan Park, a part of which was remodelled under Singapore's Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme to function as a floodplain. Image: Jan, CC BY-SA 2.0

If Southeast Asia is to keep its head above water in the next few decades, it must take a proactive rather than reactive stance on flood control, and work to reacquaint its people with nature, said experts at an event in Singapore last week.

Most countries in the region are focused on adaption and mitigation rather than preventing the floods in the first place, noted Danish pump manufacturer Grundfos’ regional business director of water utility, Grundfos, Asia Pacific, Chee Meng Tan. 

He was speaking on a panel discussion with other industry experts examining the impact, attitudes and action on climate change in Southeast Asia. The conversation was part of the launch of a whitepaper on Flood Controls in Southeast Asia by Grundfos and sustainability media outlet Eco-Business, held at the Mandarin Orchard Hotel on Tuesday. 

Addressing the 40-strong audience of water and sustainability experts, Tan pointed out that the region’s reactionary approach to flood management has been proven by history. “We’ve seen that in Thailand in 2011 when Bangkok was submerged for nearly a month,” said Tan.

“After that, you could see a huge amount of money being poured into flood mitigation,” he added. 

Tan said that as intense rainfall and flooding become more regular occurrences in the future, countries should look into early flood mitigation, get everyone involved in prevention efforts, and keep awareness of these issues high.

The whitepaper surveyed 417 sustainability industry leaders across Singapore, Malaysia,  Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to understand local attitudes towards water infrastructure, management and climate change. It shares case studies of how countries have used water technologies to stave off the worst effects of urban flooding. 

Malaysia, for instance, has used rain animation software to study rainfall incidence around the Sungai Selangor and Sungai Tinggi dams in Selangor state and review its water infrastructure. 

Jeffrey Obbard, professor and director of the Environmental Science Center at Qatar University remarked: “Technology is not the panacea [to climate change], but it is possibly the ladder out of this problem, or can at least alleviate it, if we’re smart about its use.”

The nature of flooding

A member of the audience, Robert Wasson, senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, commented that engineering and installing hardware to tackle climate change was “easy”, but persuading people to care about such issues was the hard part.

To address this challenge, Governments in more affluent Southeast Asian countries have sought to forge a stronger relationship between people and water, on top of existing water management and flood prevention efforts. Singapore, for example, is making its waterways greener and accessible to the public under the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, administered by national water agency PUB.

Panellist at the event, PUB’s director of catchment and waterways, Ridzuan Ismail shared how the Singapore utilities board worked with the National Parks Board to turn the previously utilitarian, concrete canal in Bishan Park into a lush floodplain where people can relax and play.

When it rains, the area fills with water as it was designed to. But some citizens don’t understand that flooding is part of the country’s natural landscape and, alarmed by it, contact PUB, said Ridzuan. Such incidents are opportunities to reach out and educate the public about nature and Singapore’s water infrastructure, he added.

While Southeast Asia, Singapore included, is naturally prone to floods as a result of monsoon seasons and low-lying coastlines, the rate at which water and sewage infrastructure is growing cannot keep up with urban expansion in most Southeast Asian countries. 

Building up cities with little consideration of the natural landscape also has the side effect of alienating the population from nature at a time when climate change promises to unleash more rain and floods in the region. 

But a close connection with nature is important, said Eco-Business research director Tim Hill, because if citizens are able to respect and understand the importance of water, it would be easier for them to appreciate the urgency of fighting climate change.  

“Singapore is a low-lying tropical city and people have to get back in touch with nature here,” said Hill, who authored the whitepaper. 

“Consumers may not be able to impact flooding directly, but the carbon emissions they generate daily contribute to extreme weather patterns and we need to educate these consumers in order to fight climate change.” 

Getting involved

The whitepaper called for countries in the region to have take a unified approach to tackling flood management, sharing best practices and establishing frameworks for prevention and protection comma similar to practices adopted in the European Union. 

Grundfos’ Tan, said there was not enough regional dialogue about flood controls. Singapore has a role to play in sharing flood management practices with its neighbours, he said, though other speakers wondered if the Singapore experience would be applicable in countries with larger waterways.

Countries could build greater water awareness starting with schools, suggested the whitepaper, while businesses that use water or develop urban infrastructure must keep up to date on the dialogue on climate change and flood control rather than simply react to government legislation. 

Consumers may not be able to impact flooding directly, but the carbon emissions they generate daily contribute to extreme weather patterns and we need to educate these consumers in order to fight climate change.

Tim Hill, research director, Eco-Business

This is critical as studies have found that the region will see as much as a 25 per cent increase in catastrophic precipitation as a result of global warming, and lose up to 11 per cent of gross domestic product by 2100. Cities most exposed to the extreme weather patterns as a result of climate change—including Jakarta, Singapore, Manila, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City— may very well see up to US$2.8 trillion in assets go up in smoke.

The impacts of climate change are happening “bigger, sooner and faster” than expected, said Qatar University’s Obbard, who pointed out that Southeast Asia will be the first to experience climate departure starting in 2020. Based on a study by the University of Hawaii, climate departure is the year in which the average temperature of the coolest year will be warmer hotter than the warmest year between 1960 and 2005. 

Manokwari in West Papua, Indonesia will be the first into this brave new world in 2020, but Singapore will follow not too far behind, in 2028. 

But Obbard said he remains optimistic, pointing out that there has been a “sea change” in climate change protection, mitigation and adaptation investment. 

“That gives me a lot of hope and interest in the engineering solutions, beyond new technology, which will be absolutely critical for Southeast Asia in the coming decades,” he said. 

Download and read the whitepaper Flood Controls in Southeast Asia by Eco-Business here.

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