January’s weather extremes: Will it spur new action?
By J. Jackson Ewing and Sally Trethewie
January 2013 saw weather and environmental extremes across the globe pose severe threats to lives and livelihoods. Unprecedented hot weather and heavy flooding were seen in Australia. Abnormally cold weather hit China, western Russia and South Asia. Areas of North and South America battled some of the worst droughts of the past century.
While these events were all unique, there is an emerging consensus that such abrupt or unpredicted environmental conditions are likely to define the coming decades. Urgent attention should therefore be given to the systemic inadequacies in physical and social infrastructure revealed by January’s events.
The resilience of built environments is paramount to dealing with the impacts of extreme weather. Russia’s cold snap became deadly, for example, as subfreezing temperatures and heavy snowfall crippled infrastructure. Pipes that carry water and heat into homes, schools and businesses burst. Roads were closed and flights disrupted, isolating towns. Russia’s government is now debating a host of questions about how to update or reinvent the ageing infrastructure that was so thoroughly overwhelmed this winter. Their level of success in this endeavour will dictate to a large extent how well the country fares in an era of weather extremes.
Jakarta, likewise, had little success in managing its floods. Streets were impassable and thousands driven from their homes in an impromptu housing crisis. The events have spurred the city to consider backing up drainage systems with new micro-tunnelling (also known as pipe jacking) infrastructure. The city is also exploring ground-based cloud seeding options. While some such approaches are largely unproven, it is essential that Jakarta and other vulnerable metropolises continue to innovate and experiment their way to greater physical resilience.
Social tools that allow for cohesive response at the community level also proved essential during January’s extreme weather, both through their presence and their absence. In cases of heat, cold and flooding, communities and individuals that were most isolated faced the most acute risk and dire impacts (including the majority of reported deaths).
Communication technologies such as mobile phones and social media platforms can open up avenues to mitigate such risks. In Jakarta, for example, tweets and Facebook posts relating to the floods rose along with the water. Some of these provided useful information about the situation and the response efforts in affected parts of the city.
Such emergent pathways for connectivity and attention gathering could be used to achieve a greater level of cooperation and communication between communities, governments and other responding actors. China’s experience exemplifies such possibilities, as citizens continue to loudly call attention to the problems they faced during January’s overwhelmingly cold weather.
These observations suggest that countries must look to systems-level solutions that integrate physical and social schemes. Further, adaptability must be an intrinsic feature of systems that are developed. With climate and weather conditions predicted to be even more challenging in the coming decades, governments and cities need to prepare quickly and strategically if they are to avoid catastrophic losses in the future.
J. Jackson Ewing and Sally Trethewie are, respectively, Research Fellow and Associate Research Fellow with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.