Extreme Weather Is Brutalizing Asia

Floods, droughts, tropical storms, and heat waves are severely testing the resilience of a region with a lot of vulnerable people.

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Two people on a makeshift raft during flooding in Pakistan
Two people on a makeshift raft during flooding in Pakistan
People make their way along a waterlogged street in a residential area after a heavy monsoon rainfall in Hyderabad, Pakistan, on Aug. 24. AKRAM SHAHID/AFP via Getty Images

High temperatures, frequent droughts, torrential rains, and other extreme weather events this summer have throttled Asia, forced industries to shut down, slowed global business, disrupted food supplies, and upended the lives of ordinary people living in some of the world’s most populous countries and densely packed cities. 

For months, countries across the Asia-Pacific have been experiencing a mix of heavier rains and higher temperatures, creating unpredictable weather patterns. When the rains aren’t falling a lot—as in Pakistan, where eight monsoon cycles have left thousands of people homeless—they aren’t falling at all, causing energy shortages as droughts have seriously restricted access to hydroelectric power. Record-breaking temperatures in China, for example, have sparked intense wildfires in the country’s center and dried up rivers that cities bank on to power industries and homes.

On Tuesday, a severe tropical storm in the Philippines forced schools to shutter the day after classes resumed in person for the first time following the nationwide shutdown and a shift to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Government buildings in some of the most industrialized metro areas also closed Tuesday and Wednesday, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. announced in a statement. Earlier this month, extremely heavy rains in South Korea flooded roads in Seoul, causing landslides and killing at least eight people, including one family living in a half-basement—a kind of low-income housing that makes up about 5 percent of the city’s homes.

High temperatures, frequent droughts, torrential rains, and other extreme weather events this summer have throttled Asia, forced industries to shut down, slowed global business, disrupted food supplies, and upended the lives of ordinary people living in some of the world’s most populous countries and densely packed cities. 

For months, countries across the Asia-Pacific have been experiencing a mix of heavier rains and higher temperatures, creating unpredictable weather patterns. When the rains aren’t falling a lot—as in Pakistan, where eight monsoon cycles have left thousands of people homeless—they aren’t falling at all, causing energy shortages as droughts have seriously restricted access to hydroelectric power. Record-breaking temperatures in China, for example, have sparked intense wildfires in the country’s center and dried up rivers that cities bank on to power industries and homes.

On Tuesday, a severe tropical storm in the Philippines forced schools to shutter the day after classes resumed in person for the first time following the nationwide shutdown and a shift to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Government buildings in some of the most industrialized metro areas also closed Tuesday and Wednesday, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. announced in a statement. Earlier this month, extremely heavy rains in South Korea flooded roads in Seoul, causing landslides and killing at least eight people, including one family living in a half-basement—a kind of low-income housing that makes up about 5 percent of the city’s homes.

“The problem has always been that the most vulnerable communities tend to be the poorest communities, the marginalized communities, the communities that don’t have resilience built in,” said Peter Gleick, a climate and water scientist and the co-founder of the nonprofit Pacific Institute.

The disruptions to the normal weather patterns mean that either places get flooded, or they get scorched. Cities in southern China—notably those in Sichuan, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from hydropower—are experiencing a major drought. A mix of high temperatures and slower rainfall has caused local officials to suspend the supply of hydropower to some companies and factories. Experts are also warning of lower electricity supply for the winter. This isn’t China’s first dance: Last fall, China was hit by widespread coal shortages, causing long-lasting power outages and residential blackouts, which are particularly dangerous.

“You’re talking about heatstroke, you’re talking about old folks who can’t get the word out of their homes that they need help,” said David Fishman, senior manager at the Lantau Group, a Shanghai-based economic consultancy focused on Asia’s energy industry. 

But this year, while the energy shortage hasn’t become that extreme, a drier than normal rainy season has left water supply low, and higher temperatures are causing the little rainfall in reservoirs to dry up fast.

“Normally during this rainy season, if the rain is actually falling properly, power is really, really cheap,” Fishman said. 

Everybody downstream of Sichuan, along with China’s eastern coast, a major importer of Sichuan hydroelectricity, has been affected, he said. Plus, with a water shortage comes a slowdown in production, affecting cars, fertilizers, and steel, and increases the demand for other energy sources, like coal, he said.

“When hydropower is affected, it’s not momentary,” Fishman said. “Performance has been down for all of July and August, and that means going into the autumn and winter, hydropower production should be depleted still.” 

That means turning back to the very things that are contributing to the weird weather in the first place. The return to coal and other non-hydropower sources “ironically contributes to the emissions of greenhouse gasses and worsens the risk of climate change,” Gleick said.

In Pakistan, heavy monsoons and extreme flooding have killed at least 900 people and destroyed at least 95,350 houses since mid-June, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“It is a serious humanitarian disaster,” Pakistani Federal Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman told CNN Wednesday. “We have monsoons every year. … It is nothing like this. This is a torrential downpour of biblical proportions,” she said. Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, at one point saw nearly 16 inches of rain collect over just a few hours, Rehman said. (For context, rainfall greater than around 1/3 inch per hour is considered “very heavy rain.”) 

“No city is structured or geared up or that climate resilient that it can cope with this amount of water in such a short time,” she said.

But smaller-scale storms are also concerning, particularly in Southeast Asia. Rural areas in Indonesia have been particularly hard hit.

“Food staples—rice, corn, and vegetables—are most affected by flooding,” said Ade Soekadis, the Executive Director at Mercy Corps Indonesia. They are grown close to river embankments, which rise during periods of heavy rain, so wetter seasons could actually destroy crops that are most crucial to people’s diets and exports, he said.

While climate experts in Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous nation, had predicted increased wildfires this year, the country has instead seen an uptick in flash floods during the wetter summer months. While a longer wet season has allowed farmers to plant more cycles of crops, harvests have become increasingly difficult to predict.

Asia’s climate crisis is by no means unique: Europe is preparing for a particularly cold winter, and Mediterranean nations in recent months have seen a devastating medley of heat and drought.

But Asia is extremely diverse, with different capabilities to respond to climate-change challenges, and it’s full of people. “India and China have very, very large populations. And for that reason, they have large numbers of people exposed to these events,” Gleick said. Coupled with the increasing frequency of extreme weather and the unpredictable nature of climate change, nowhere—from the countryside to the cities—will likely be spared.

“I don’t think governments are prepared for dealing with the vulnerabilities that climate change is bringing,” he said.

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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