Climate change's true toll on Asia laid bare with drought and landslides to blame


Asia’s economic losses from natural disasters rocketed last year, a report published by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has found. Compared to the 2001–2020 average, the cost of the damage from landslides increased 147 percent last year, with losses from drought going up by 63 percent and flood by 23 percent. Presented today at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, the State of the Climate in Asia 2021 report highlighted not only the increasing financial toll of climate change, but also its human and environmental consequences.

Water-related extremes, the authors noted, are the most significant natural hazards in Asia — with flood and storm events accounting for 80 percent of all the disasters. In fact, these resulted in 4,000 deaths, around four-fifths of which were the result of flooding.

The highest economic losses from flooding in Asia last year were felt in China ($18.4 billion), followed by India ($3.2billion) and Thailand ($0.6billion). Storms were also responsible for significant damage-related losses, most prominently in India (at $4.4billion), China ($3billion) and Japan ($2billion).

While flooding may have accounted for the most fatalities, the report also noted droughts affected the largest number of people, with sand and dust storms also a major problem.

WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas said: “The climate indicators and extreme events shown in this report and the expected increase in precipitation over much of Asia in the future shows just how vital it is to strengthen early warning systems. The UN Early Warning for All programme will help protect people from more frequent and intense extreme weather — and there are major gaps to be filled in Asia.”

The report, which the WMO produced in tandem with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), also painted a worrying picture of future water stress.

High-mountain Asia — a region that incorporates both the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau — contains the largest volume of ice on the planet outside the polar regions, with glaciers covering an area of 38,610 square miles.

According to the WMO, these glaciers are retreating at an accelerating rate, with the unusually warm and dry conditions seen last year having led to “intense” mass losses.Moreover, these glaciers — often dubbed the “water towers of the world” — are vital in how they supply freshwater to some of the most densely populated regions on the planet.

Given this, the experts warned, glacier retreat has major implications for future generations, as it threatens water security.

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According to ESCAP, the cost of climate adaptation would cost $188.8billion each year in China, compared with $46.3billion in India on an annual basis and $26.5billion in Japan.

Most Asian countries, the WMO noted, are prioritising adaptation in their climate action plans — with a typical focus on water, food security, ecosystems and health.

WMO experts also noted that adaptation priorities with high investment cost–benefits include improving early warning systems, building resilient infrastructure, improving dryland crop production and implementing nature-based solutions.

The State of the Climate in Asia 2021 report was published on the WMO website.


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