Fid­dling in the Face of Floods

Cli­mate Change and Asia’s Coastal Cities

Global Asia - - FEATURE ESSAY - By John Fef­fer

the Fu­ture OF asian port cities is in­ad­ver­tently on dis­play at the Bu­san aquar­ium, on south Korea’s most beloved stretch of beach: hae­un­dae Beach, along the coun­try’s south­east­ern coast. It doesn’t look like much from the out­side, just a cou­ple of small build­ings. But the aquar­ium’s rep­u­ta­tion — as well as sev­eral large signs and an end­lessly re­peated jin­gle — draws peo­ple in. and then down.

an es­ca­la­tor takes vis­i­tors deep be­neath the sandy beach to view a vast ar­ray of fresh­wa­ter and salt­wa­ter ma­rine life. One of the spe­cial fea­tures of the aquar­ium is the way it re­pro­duces the feel­ing of walk­ing on the se­abed. near the end of the tour, past the ot­ters and pen­guins and col­or­ful jel­ly­fish, the tanks cre­ate a tun­nel to walk through, with co­ral, manta rays, and even some deep-sea divers float­ing over­head and all around, just be­yond reach.

It’s a light-hearted sim­u­la­tion of what it feels like be­ing com­pletely sub­merged by the ocean.

Con­sid­er­ably less light-hearted is the film Hae­un­dae, which dra­ma­tizes the ex­pe­ri­ence of ocean sub­mer­sion for those un­able to imag­ine it for them­selves. Di­rected by Yoon Je-ky­oon and re­leased in 2009, south Korea’s first ma­jor dis­as­ter film de­picts what hap­pens when a mas­sive tsunami hits Bu­san’s ex­pen­sive beach­front, killing hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple.

Both the film (ex­plic­itly) and the aquar­ium (un­wit­tingly) send an omi­nous mes­sage. If the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity fails to ar­rest ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures and cities such as Bu­san don’t take firmer mea­sures to pro­tect against the ocean waves, then these sim­u­la­tions of be­ing un­der­wa­ter will be­come the re­al­ity for hae­un­dae.

Bu­san’s beach­front is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to ty­phoons, hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced flood­ing in 2003, 2010, and 2012. But hae­un­dae Beach re­ally felt the power of the ocean in late septem­ber 2016, when ty­phoon Chaba struck south Korea’s south­ern coast. Waves up to eight me­ters high slammed into apart­ment build­ings, ho­tels, and res­tau­rants, caus­ing con­sid­er­able dam­age.

Bu­san could have avoided at least some of that dam­age. In 2012, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity at­tempted to build a 3.4-me­ter bar­rier above the ex­ist­ing 5.1me­ter break­wa­ter. When res­tau­rant own­ers and res­i­dents com­plained that the ad­di­tion would block their ocean­front view, the city scaled back its project to 1.2 me­ters. the waves from ty­phoon Chaba eas­ily over­whelmed that ob­sta­cle.

the Vul­ner­a­bil­ity of asia

Bu­san is by no means the most vul­ner­a­ble of asia’s port cities. ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by Cli­mate Cen­tral of the im­pact of a 3-de­gree in­crease in global tem­per­a­tures,1 asia would be hit harder than any other re­gion in the world, with four out of ev­ery five in­hab­i­tants directly af­fected by the changes. swathes of Osaka, shang­hai and hong Kong would sim­ply dis­ap­pear.

Asia is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble as the wa­ter

each de­gree of in­crease in global tem­per­a­tures trans­lates into a lit­tle more than a two-me­ter in­crease in ocean lev­els. some cities in asia, such as Bangladesh’s cap­i­tal, Dhaka, have al­ready been in­un­dated by flood­ing. shang­hai has built 520 kilo­me­ters of sea walls to pro­tect against the ris­ing tide.2 Jakarta is es­pe­cially at risk be­cause, even as the wa­ter lev­els are ris­ing, the In­done­sian cap­i­tal is sink­ing from more and more res­i­dents drain­ing the fresh wa­ter from be­neath the city. In the worst-case sce­nario of a 65-me­ter rise in the oceans — which would re­sult from a

of the po­lar ice caps — Mumbai, Bangkok, Manila, and Bei­jing would all go un­der the waves.3 It’s not just cities, of course. Ris­ing ocean lev­els also have a di­rect im­pact on agri­cul­ture. the in­tru­sion of salt wa­ter through deltas into rivers and streams can de­stroy the liveli­hood of mil­lions of farm­ers and threaten the food se­cu­rity of en­tire re­gions.

asia is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble be­cause the wa­ter threat comes from two di­rec­tions: from the ocean and from the sky. Kim hyungjin stud­ies wa­ter sys­tems at the apec Cli­mate Cen­ter in Bu­san. each de­gree Cel­sius in­crease in tem­per­a­ture, he has told me, boosts the amount of wa­ter va­por in the air. that trans­lates into more rainfall. But here’s the catch: it’s not evenly dis­trib­uted. It’s a “rich get­ting richer” pat­tern, he says. “We have a global monsoon area. this area has more pre­cip­i­ta­tion than oth­ers. When there is a monsoon area, there is a dry area out­side of the monsoon area. there is cir­cu­la­tion to main­tain bal­ance. the monsoon area, which has more rain than oth­ers, has even more rain than be­fore. the dry area, which gets less rain usu­ally, gets drier.” that’s bad news for asia, much of which is sub­ject to monsoon weather. It not only boosts the rainfall for ar­eas that al­ready ex­pe­ri­ence flood­ing, it also con­trib­utes to more ex­treme weather events — such as the flood­ing in thai­land that wiped out hun­dreds of fac­to­ries in 2011 or the su­per-ty­phoon lan that struck Ja­pan with heavy rain and wind in Oc­to­ber 2017. Re­cent sta­tis­tics al­ready bear out this pat­tern. as Kim points out, data from the Korean Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion demon­strates that most of the cases of tor­ren­tial rainfall in mod­ern Korean his­tory have hap­pened in the last 10 years, four of them in Bu­san.

a tale of two Cities

In 2016, south Korea led the Cli­mate ac­tion tracker’s list of worst of­fend­ers.4 to be sure, the gov­ern­ment talked a good game on re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions and also hosted both the Green Cli­mate Fund and the Global Green Growth Ini­tia­tive. On the other hand, it has been in­creas­ing its per-capita emis­sions, and re­new­able en­ergy con­trib­utes a mere 1 per­cent to the coun­try’s en­ergy needs.5 to add in­sult to in­jury, south Korea less­ened its com­mit­ment to meet­ing its Paris cli­mate agree­ment obli­ga­tions, al­ready rather mod­est, by giv­ing it­self an ad­di­tional decade to meet the goal. In its ef­fort to get south Korea off that list, the new gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in has pledged to shut down 10 coal-fired power plants and build no new ones. the gov­ern­ment has also set an am­bi­tious goal of re­new­able en­ergy con­tribut­ing 20 per­cent to the over­all to­tal by 2030. still, the coun­try con­tin­ues to get a “highly in­suf­fi­cient” grade from Cli­mate ac­tion tracker.6

things are some­what dif­fer­ent on a mu­nic­i­pal level. For the past few years, seoul Mayor Park Won-soon on has pushed ahead ag­gres­sively with a sus­tain­able en­ergy plan for the city that

threat comes from the ocean and the sky.

re­lies on greater use of re­new­able en­ergy, par­tic­u­larly so­lar, and more civic in­volve­ment in en­ergy con­ser­va­tion.7 since seoul ac­counts for a large por­tion of south Korea’s pop­u­la­tion, these mu­nic­i­pal ef­forts have a na­tional im­pact. the port city of Bu­san is more ex­posed than seoul to the im­me­di­ate im­pact of ris­ing wa­ters. “We do rec­og­nize that we need a struc­tural change,” lee Geun-hee, the direc­tor gen­eral of the city’s Cli­mate and en­vi­ron­ment Bureau, told me. “We do have ris­ing sea lev­els. We have too much rain at the same time. Bu­san and Korea used to have reg­melt­ing

amounts of rain dur­ing the monsoon sea­son. But the amount of rain has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally. We built fa­cil­i­ties, like waste-treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties, based on these 30-year ex­pec­ta­tions.”

to ad­dress these changes, Bu­san has retro-fit­ted some of its ex­ist­ing struc­tures to deal with the prob­lem, such as by cre­at­ing ad­di­tional drainage in­fra­struc­ture be­neath the city to han­dle all the ad­di­tional wa­ter. Bu­san is also cre­at­ing eco Delta City, which will oc­cupy what had been a largely empty flat area in the western quad­rant of the city. the new zone will fea­ture new res­i­den­tial and busi­ness dis­tricts but also a new air­port and a new port. “We can ex­pect that the fre­quency and amount of rain will be much greater, so we have made the ground three me­ters higher,” lee told me. In ad­di­tion to pumps on the nearby river to deal with po­ten­tial over­flow, it will fea­ture other “eco” el­e­ments, such as a greater re­liance on sus­tain­able en­ergy. although he ac­knowl­edged the im­por­tance of build­ing larger sea walls to con­tain the ris­ing ocean, lee pointed to a ge­o­graphic fea­ture that ad­van­tages Bu­san: the city is sur­rounded by moun­tains. But how­ever high those moun­tains, the low-ly­ing ar­eas of Bu­san, like eco Delta City and the hae­un­dae beach­front, re­main vul­ner­a­ble. and the city doesn’t seem to be mov­ing with any great ur­gency in the di­rec­tion of cli­mate adap­ta­tion.

a three-hour ferry trip sep­a­rates Bu­san from the Ja­panese pre­fec­ture of Fukuoka. Perched on the north­ern coast of the pre­fec­ture, Ki­takyushu is well known for its en­vi­ron­men­tal record over re­cent decades. In 1997, the city be­gan pro­mot­ing its “eco-town Project” fo­cused on com­pre­hen­sive re­cy­cling at home and in in­dus­try. In 2002, the city ex­panded the pro­gram to in­clude other en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns such as sus­tain­able en­ergy pro­duc­tion. like Bu­san, Ki­takyushu faces the dou­ble threat of the ocean and monsoon rains, and it is con­stantly at risk of flood­ing. It has also built sea walls that seem woe­fully in­ad­e­quate to the chal­lenge. and, like Bu­san, the pres­ence of nearby moun­tains seems to pro­vide false re­as­sur­ance.

You’d think that af­ter 2011, and the tsunami that caused the near melt­down at the nu­clear

At some point, China and the re­gion must

plant in Fukushima, Ja­panese cities would have switched into high gear to pro­tect their coast­lines. But Okam­ato shinichi, who works on en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns in the Ki­takyushu city gov­ern­ment, didn’t seem ex­ces­sively con­cerned. “the coastal area of Ki­takyushu is about 200 kilo­me­ters,” he told me. “Right now, it may be not the best idea to pro­tect the whole area with a wall. It’s not some­thing you can build in a day. In­stead, right now, we’re mon­i­tor­ing ar­eas sen­si­tive to the prob­lem and ad­dress­ing them.” he didn’t seem aware that shang­hai was build­ing a sea wall to pro­tect a coast twice that length. Okam­ato was once re­spon­si­ble for wa­ter prob­lems. “I can tell how much ef­fort is made to try to deal with an even­tual tsunami or flood in the best way pos­si­ble,” he told me. and that largely con­sists of alert­ing the pop­u­la­tion. “You can see on ev­ery light pole the el­e­va­tion of the area,” he added. “If there is an area in dan­ger of flood­ing, peo­ple know about it and they can leave the area and go to a higher area.”

at the na­tional level, Ja­pan has gen­er­ally re­sponded more res­o­lutely to the threat of cli­mate change than south Korea has. af­ter the Fukushima nu­clear dis­as­ter in 2011, the share of re­new­able en­ergy in Ja­pan’s over­all elec­tric­u­lar

ity gen­er­a­tion jumped from un­der 10 per­cent to nearly 15 per­cent in only five years.8 still, the same or­ga­ni­za­tion that sin­gled out south Korea for its in­ad­e­quate re­sponse puts Ja­pan in the “highly in­suf­fi­cient” cat­e­gory as well. Worse, Ja­panese cities seem to be stuck in dis­cus­sion mode — even Osaka, a much larger and more ex­posed city than Ki­takyushu. “In the past our re­sponse was fo­cused on re­duc­ing the causes of global warm­ing, but given that cli­mate change is in­evitable, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC), we are now dis­cussing how to re­spond to the nat­u­ral dis­as­ters that will fol­low,” toshikazu nakaaki of the Osaka mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment’s en­vi­ron­ment bureau re­cently told Bri­tish news­pa­per The Guardian.9

the Ele­phant in the re­gion

Be­cause of its eco­nomic size and its sta­tus as the largest emit­ter of green­house gases in the world, China is at the cen­ter of any dis­cus­sion on cli­mate change. Do­mes­ti­cally, China has poured re­sources into so­lar en­ergy, wind power, and hy­dro. It is ex­per­i­ment­ing with new tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing an ex­press­way in Ji­nan paved in so­lar pan­els cov­ered by a durable trans­par­ent ma­te­rial that lets in the sun’s rays.10 But it is China’s in­volve­ment abroad that will prove piv­otal. Be­cause of its huge re­gional in­fra­struc­ture project, the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, China is in a po­si­tion to al­ter the very face of asian ports. “With its Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, China has been mak­ing mas­sive in­vest­ments into ports around the world,” says Jen­nifer turner, who di­rects the China en­vi­ron­ment Fo­rum at the Wil­son Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, DC. “the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has even started talk­ing about a Green Belt and Road. Well, it’s not quite there yet. that’s the chal­lenge: they’re of­ten greener in in­vest­ing in China than go­ing out­ward.”

Key to green­ing the One Belt, One Road Ini­tia­tive is fi­nanc­ing. last year, China is­sued a us$2.15 bil­lion green bond to fi­nance re­new­able en­ergy-re­lated projects as­so­ci­ated with the ini­tia­tive.11 at the level of ports, the fo­cus to date has gen­er­ally been on the re­duc­tion of pol­lu­tion and car­bon foot­prints, rather than adap­ta­tion to

adapt to the re­al­ity of the ever-ris­ing tide.

ris­ing wa­ters. so, for in­stance, ports are in­vest­ing in “shore power,” which al­lows ships to con­nect to elec­tric­ity in port so that they’re not burn­ing diesel.12 air pol­lu­tion re­mains a ma­jor prob­lem in China — and smog can also dis­rupt port busi­ness — so Bei­jing has also been push­ing to shift to lower-sul­fur fuel, par­tic­u­larly as ships ap­proach port.13

at some point, how­ever, China and the re­gion as a whole must adapt to the re­al­ity of the ev­er­ris­ing tide. In the old eco­nomic par­a­digm, a ris­ing tide was sup­posed to float all boats — eco­nomic ex­pan­sion ben­e­fits ev­ery­one. In the new eco­nomic par­a­digm, a ris­ing tide threat­ens to sink all boats — the fail­ure to ad­just to cli­mate change will cost all economies. China knows all too well how much its fu­ture eco­nomic suc­cess — and by ex­ten­sion, its po­lit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal for­tunes — de­pends on ad­dress­ing this ris­ing tide and en­sur­ing that asia sur­vives all of the wa­ter that lies in its fu­ture. john fef­fer is direc­tor of for­eign pol­icy in fo­cus and direc­tor of Epi­cen­ter at the in­sti­tute for pol­icy stud­ies, wash­ing­ton dc.

Photo: Yon­hap

Land­fall: Su­per­ty­phoon Chaba pum­mels Hae­un­dae Ma­rine City coast road in Bu­san, South Korea, in Oc­to­ber 2016. Coastal flood­ing around Asia is ex­cepted to worsen dra­mat­i­cally with ris­ing sea lev­els.

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