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Maybe climate change is closer than we think

Tracee Hutchison, Monday February 4, 2013 - 14:57 EDT

While Australia faced another summer of floods, Indonesia's capital grappled with its own watery chaos and smog brought Beijing to a choking halt, writes Tracee Hutchison.

Australia's recent re-acquaintance with devastating flooding in Queensland and northern NSW this summer has been another sobering reminder of the climatic shape-shifting wreaking havoc with lives and livelihoods across the country.

Yes, Dorothea Mackellar might well have written of droughts and flooding rains in the early 1900s (while homesick for Australia as a teenager in England), but you'd be hard-pressed to find much wistful fondness among the many farmers who have watched livestock, equipment and expanses of primary produce wash away their livelihoods for the second time in two years.

For many of these much-heralded "country folk", the financial and emotional struggle of staying on the land will be too much; they've said as much in shocked-filled resignation as the water came back too soon.

Watching on, from the fire-prone drier states, the unspoken narrative is screaming; where will these people go? What will they do for a living? And who will grow the food they were growing for both domestic and export markets?

There's even been talk from Queensland Premier Campbell Newman that some flood-prone residential areas in Queensland might have to be relocated to avoid what looks increasingly like the recurring reality of extreme flooding.

So what about when the city in question has numbers nudging the entire population of Australia? That's the reality in Jakarta right now, where record flooding has swamped the CBD for the first time in history. There is increasing talk that relocating the Indonesian capital is the only feasible solution to an escalating problem.

Jakarta is sinking. Literally. Years and years of unregulated private water-bores has drained the city's below-sea-level water table dry. The record rain, coupled with an underdeveloped drainage system and the penchant of Jakartans to use the city's waterways as rubbish dumps, brought this city of 20-odd million to a standstill of a different kind.

For the first time in years there were no cars on Jakarta's streets (other than floating ones); instead, the city more used to lumbering in a grinding traffic gridlock was incapacitated by metre-high water that turned the city's roads into Venice-style canals. It put a whole new - and rather ironic - spin on Jakarta's car-free day campaign to reduce pollution in the city.

Australians remember the massive economic and political impact when Brisbane flooded two year ago - the disruption and cost to business, the national flood levy, the daily Bligh/Newman media show, the rebuild. Try expanding that impact to one of the most important capitals in South East Asia, a regional heavyweight and ASEAN powerbroker.

The implications of a non-functioning Jakarta are immense and wide-ranging both for Indonesia and the region. But this is the reality facing the new Jakartan governor Joko Widodo and outgoing Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his government, who are canvassing alternate-capital locations in higher and drier locations.

And while the Indonesian capital grappled with a watery chaos, further north a different kind of stultification was engulfing the Chinese capital. The soupy and toxic coal-fuelled smog that has descended across northern China sent monitoring devices off the scale in Beijing.

Hospitals recorded a 30 per cent increase in admissions for respiratory-related illnesses and residents were ordered to stay indoors as state-run manufacturing was put on the kind of state-instructed 'go-slow' not seen since the Blue Sky policies of the Beijing Olympic preparations. China's coal-powered construction boom had brought its capital to a choking halt.

Things were so bad in Beijing that billionaire entrepreneur Chen Guangbiao started selling air in cans with sweet smelling fragrances of "Pristine Tibet", "Post Industrial Taiwan" and "Revolutionary Yanan". At the height of the smog, Chen sold 8 millions cans in 10 days at about 75 cents AUD a can, with proceeds going to poor regions of China, the ones most likely to be forced into poorly regulated manufacturing jobs.

There is something darkly delicious about China's state-run manufacturing boom on a state-imposed go-slow because Beijing's middle class, the beneficiaries of the boom, can't breath. It's a vexing Catch-22 for China's new leadership - how to keep a slowing economy buoyant but avoid a widespread public health crisis - and a new twist on boom or bust. Not to mention the regional economic implications for trading partners like Australia, whose coal-exporters might possibly be the elephant in the (Beijing hospital) room.

It doesn't seem that long ago that "environmental refugees" living on increasingly brackish low-lying Pacific island states of Kiribati and Tuvalu were dismissed as the political fodder of fear-mongering climate change campaigners. Now, sadly, relocations from what were once primary food-producing areas are a new way of life - and it's not just Kiribatins and Tuvaluans feeling the watery heat.

Widespread record flooding and deadly landslides have been a common theme across the Pacific this summer - PNG, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands have all battled extreme weather events from ferocious cyclones and record rains. 

It used to be that a few thousand people with wet feet in the Pacific never got much traction outside environmental campaigner circles; perhaps this faraway time of a planet impacted by a changing climate might be closer than we think.

Tracee Hutchison broadcasts throughout Australia and the Asia Pacific for ABC News Radio and Radio Australia. View her full profile .


- ABC

© ABC 2013

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