David Adam, SCMP – Updated on Dec 14, 2008
As Global Warming Raises Ocean Levels, Rich Nations Are Being Urged to Bail out the Vulnerable
Which country will be most affected by the steady rise of the seas?
Which country could see more than a tenth of its population displaced, a tenth of its economic power crippled and a tenth of its towns and cities swamped by the end of this century?
The answer, which may surprise you, is Vietnam, named by the World Bank as the nation with most to lose as global warming forces the oceans to reclaim the land.
Just a 1-metre rise in sea level would flood more than 7 per cent of the country’s agricultural land and wreck nearly 30 per cent of its wetlands, the bank says. And the situation could be worse than that: a 1-metre rise in sea level is at the conservative end of the predictions for the year 2100. Some climate experts, including Jim Hansen, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, argue the likely rise should be measured in several metres.
A 1-metre rise would still be enough to cause chaos. In a study recently published in the journal Climatic Change, the World Bank says such a rise would have an impact on about 0.3 per cent of the territory – 194,000 sq km – of 84 developing countries. That might not sound much, but it would affect about 56 million people. Coastal populations across poorer countries generally do better economically, so the surge in the seas would affect GDP even more – about 1.3 per cent.
The study, which summarises the findings of a 50-page briefing paper published by the bank last year, comes as campaigners call for rich countries to do more to help the developing world adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.
Heather Coleman, senior climate change policy adviser with UK-based charity Oxfam, says: “Helping vulnerable people cope with the effects of climate change is desperately needed today because they already face increasingly severe and ever-worsening climate change impacts.”
The charity released a report last week that called for at least US$50 billion a year to be channelled from international carbon trading schemes into adaptation efforts.
“With a global financial crisis unfolding, these mechanisms could raise enough money from polluters without governments having to dip into national treasuries,” Ms Coleman says. “Many negotiators agree that this is one of the more practical approaches. Billions of dollars can be raised and invested to prevent future climate change and to help poor people adapt to the negative impacts of global warming.”
Oxfam says poor countries need help to upgrade national flood early-warning systems, plant mangrove “bio-shields” along coasts to diffuse storm waves, and grow drought-tolerant crops.
The report came out last week as ministers attended UN talks in Poznan, Poland, to continue negotiations on a new global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto protocol.
Ms Coleman said the world’s leaders had paid lip service to the issue of adaptation money for too long. “It is a vital part of the overall deal, a litmus test of how serious rich countries are in tackling the problem.
“Poor people around the world bear the brunt of climate change, and yet they are least responsible for global warming. Even during tempestuous financial times, rich countries can and should help poor people to cope. We can’t afford to exchange a short-term saving for a long-term disaster.”
If countries fail to adapt to the new reality of climate change, Ms Coleman warns, they would suffer far greater damage from floods, droughts and hurricanes.
Of those, the World Bank study, led by Susmita Dasgupta, of its Development Research Group, says some countries will suffer the effects of sea level rise much worse than others. Severe impacts will be limited to a “relatively small number of countries”.
As well as Vietnam, the report highlights likely damage to the Bahamas, which could lose more than a tenth of its territory to a 1-metre rise, and Egypt, which faces the flooding of 13 per cent of its agricultural land. Mauritania, Guyana and Jamaica are also among the biggest losers.
In the bank’s rankings of the top 10 countries affected by a sea level rise, across six different types of impact, Bangladesh – often associated with rising sea levels – features only once. The country is listed as the tenth most affected by land area, with just over 1 per cent likely to be flooded.
The report says: “The overall magnitudes for the developing world are sobering: within this century, tens of millions of people are likely to be displaced by sea level rise, and the accompanying economic and ecological damage will be severe for many.”
It adds: “International resource allocation strategies should recognise the skewed impact distribution we have documented. Some countries will be little affected by sea level rise, while others will be so heavily impacted that their national integrity may be threatened. Given the scarcity of available resources, it would seem sensible to allocate aid according to degree of threat.”
The bank says the study is the first of its kind, but admits it is not foolproof. It did not investigate the effects of milder sea level rise, which will be felt in the next few decades. And its methods were too crude to assess the fate of small islands, which are particularly vulnerable. It also fails to take into account adaptation measures put in place over the next century, which would lessen the damages, or storm surges, which would worsen them.
Nevertheless, its central message is clear: “There is little evidence that the international community has seriously considered the implications of sea level rise for population location and infrastructure planning in many developing countries.”
A separate Oxfam report last month investigated the situation on the ground in Vietnam, in the provinces of Ben Tre and Quang Tri.
The charity warned that the effects of climate change threatened Vietnam’s development achievements. It is one of the few countries on track to meet most of its millennium development goals by 2015, and it managed to reduce its poverty rate from about 58 per cent of the population to 18 per cent in 2006.
“Such impressive achievements are now at risk,” Oxfam says. In 2000, Vietnam produced just 0.35 per cent of world greenhouse gas emissions – one of the lowest contributions in the world.
It is not just rising sea levels that pose a threat; higher temperatures, as well as more extremes of weather such as drought and typhoons, will have a “potentially devastating impact on the country’s people and economy”, the report says.
Some communities are already adapting to changing weather patterns. Rice farmers are harvesting earlier, before the main flooding season, or growing a rice variety with a shorter cycle.
But the report found countless cases of poor people across Ben Tre and Quang Tri who were ill-equipped to cope with the consequences of climate change.
Oxfam says rich countries must step in – and quickly. “The amounts of investment needed are beyond [Vietnam’s] budgetary capacity,” it says. “International adaptation finance will be needed in the face of unavoidable impacts.”