It’s Earth Day today and climate change takes centre stage as the theme of celebrations around the world. What’s in store for Malaysia in the coming decades?
FORGET sumptuous seafood dinners.
Forget the occasional flashflood.
Forget about tanning.
Start worrying about rising sea levels gobbling up mangroves where fish and prawns shelter.
Invest in some stylish rubber “banjir” boots as flashfloods become more frequent.
And prepare an arsenal of umbrellas and sun block against rising temperatures and heat stress.
Climate change is on its way.
As the world warms over the coming decades, several challenges loom ahead for Malaysia. These include defending miles of vulnerable coastline, surviving weather extremes and protecting crops and food supply.
In its initial national report to the United Nations on climate change issues, Malaysia has identified several possible impacts: Lower crop yields As much as six per cent of land planted with oil palm and four per cent of land under rubber may be flooded and abandoned as a result of rising sea level.
And if the current mean annual temperature of 26°C to 28°C rises to 31°C, a fall in rubber crop yield is projected. Perlis, parts of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu may experience a reduction in production.
A total of up to 15 per cent of existing rubber land may be affected under this scenario.
If higher temperatures lead to droughts, an estimated 12 per cent of existing oil palm areas will be considered close to unsuitable.
Drought-prone areas in parts of Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Johor, Kedah, Perak, Negri Sembilan and Malacca are most vulnerable.
For every degree of temperature rise, rice yields may decline by 10 per cent.
If droughts are prolonged, it may be necessary to abandon flooded rice planting systems and develop dry land systems.
National food security may be threatened, says the report.
Sea level rise could inundate and destroy most coastal aquaculture activities while warmer temperatures mean livestock could suffer heat stress, leading to reduced meat production.
Stormy weather Increasing temperatures will result in higher evaporation and transpiration, reducing the amount of water available.
For every 1°C that temperature rises, about 90mm of moisture could be lost every year through these processes.
A 10 per cent reduction in rainfall coupled with a 1°C to 3°C temperature rise means less water will run off surfaces into rivers and dams.
If we lost just 20 per cent of domestic and industrial water supply, supplementing it would cost RM152 million, says the Initial National Communication report.
According to recent studies by the National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia, flashfloods are likely to become more frequent. The patterns of where and when rain falls will also change.
The forecasts show that the north-eastern, easterncentral and north-western regions of peninsular Malaysia will experience a small increase in rainfall.
But the western-central and southern regions are expected to have a slight decrease in rainfall for the years 2041 to 2050.
The national report predicts that an increase in storm frequency and intensity will mean that the country may have to spend more to contain floodwaters.
The social and economic costs of changing existinginfrastructure to cope with more frequent and severe flooding are likely to be significant, it adds.
Large storms also mean that there may be a higher risk of slope failure at riverbanks and hills as well as a faster rate of sedimentation.
For instance, if the river discharge increased by 20 per centin the Kelantan river, the amount of sediment created would increase by 33 per cent.
In Sabah and Sarawak, an increase of 20 per cent will raise sediment loads by 44 per cent.
Coasts in trouble The sea level is expected rise over a long period of time.
But only in the worst case scenario — if the sea level rises at a rate of 0.9cm per year up till 2100 — will peninsular Malaysia lose its protective mangroves, says the report.
If this happens, some 1,200 km2of land along the peninsula’s coast that now lies below sea level could be inundated. This is also on the condition that protective bunds are not shored up.
As the depth of the surrounding seas increase, larger waves are projected to break along the coastline — putting at risk facilities like highways and power plants.
Erosion will account for another few hundred metres of shoreline retreat and submergence of coral under rising waters is also projected.
The concerns of climate change The main economic loss, says the report, will be felt in agriculture and fisheries. This is especially along vulnerable stretches of coastline hit by sea level rise.
If we lose just 20 per cent of mangrove areas — the nursery of juvenile fish — we will suffer RM300 million in fisheries losses along with an estimated 70,000 tonnes in prawn production.
More severe weather also promises higher repair bills.
The report even states that a relocation of flood victims is possible but only in the worst-case scenario.
Sea level rise is also a major concern to electrical power producers because most of their thermal power plants are located near the sea.
The Paka power station in Terengganu, for instance, is already experiencing the effects of severe coastal erosion and has to be defended by costly structural works such as concrete sea walls.
If the temperature of sea water —which is used to cool plants — rises, the efficiency of steam turbines will also drop.
The potential increase in severe tropical storms will escalate operational and maintenance costs of producers.
Changes in the rainfall pattern and drought could limit the capacity of hydroelectric power generation with serious repercussions.
Sea level rise and frequent tropical storms could also ultimately increase the cost of offshore oil exploration and production.
The report also lists some general predictions on the health impacts of climate change, which includes deaths due to heat stress or respiratory diseases due to air pollution.
Indirect effects could include increased food and water-borne diseases as a result of changing rainfall patterns, the report says.
Steps Malaysia is taking In preparing the country’s second report to the United Nations, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry has set up a working group that will look into the country’s greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to the Earth’s warming.
This group will list emissions from various sectors of economy and calculate how much carbon dioxide —a greenhouse gas —is stored in intact forests.
Another group will identify areas vulnerable to the ravages of climate change and look for ways to adapt to the changes.
According to the ministry’s Conservation and Environment Management division, a third group will look into how to lessen the impacts of climate change.
The groups began work in October last year and will complete the report in 2009. The report is being prepared with a US$450,000 grant from the Global Environment Facility.
Malaysia is also assessing its ability to address environmental issues and fulfil its obligations to international conventions.
For instance, under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the country is supposed to be able to identify species that have gone extinct in the last decade or so.
Some conventions require the country to provide data it hasn’t been able to properly record, such as calculate greenhouse gas emissions and stores.
This study will tell the country which data, technical knowledge, personnel and policies it lacks in addressing environmental issues and help in planning the use of resources.
In its bid to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, Malaysia has begun several projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
Under this mechanism, industrialised countries invest in projects in developing countries which reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere.
By doing this, the industrialised countries earn “credits”. They use the credits to offset their own emissions and meet the standards they have committed to under the Kyoto Protocol.
Malaysia has 15 CDMregistered projects that keep 1.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere, says the division.
The benefit to the Malaysian businesses is that they get paid for not emitting.
For the country, it brings in cleaner and more efficient technology and knowledge.