The present heatwave in Malaysia may well be the worst in living memory.
An elderly friend, who has experienced the turbulent events in the past century, told me he has never experienced temperatures as high as those of the past few weeks.
The blame has been put on El Nino. And it is hoped that its effects will be felt only once in many years.
However, we should be prepared for the worst. For the heatwave of 2016 may be a foretaste of more or worse to come.
The almost unbearable condition in recent weeks has been due to a temperature rise of several degrees Celsius. Even if that is wholly due to El Nino, the same or even greater temperature rise is predicted to take place due to climate change.
Already the world is now experiencing a 1°C increase in mean temperature, compared to pre-industrial levels.
A two-degree increase will be devastating and any rise beyond that may be catastrophic. At present rates of Greenhouse Gas emissions, we are on track for a four-degree worldwide increase.
Even if governments implement the climate plans they have pledged in the Paris Agreement (adopted last December), the global mean temperature is projected to rise by more than three degrees, which would be catastrophic.
Thus, what we are experiencing with El Nino today may well become the “new normal” due to global warming. Maybe not immediately, but in the lifetime of many Malaysians, especially the young.
This means we have to treat the heatwave even more seriously than as if it were a short-term problem.
The present effects are pretty bad. Families living in houses that are not air-conditioned have been enduring intolerable heat. Children in most schools are in hothouse conditions. Workers in non-air conditioned offices, especially those working outdoors like farmers and construction workers, are suffering due to the scorching sun.
It was announced that the present hot weather could continue until June, which seems a long time more.
A nightmare scenario is if the “haze” also returns when the heatwave is still on. This is possible, since the increased temperature can spark fires in agricultural and forest areas.
El Nino refers to a warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific and is associated with a band of warm ocean water and changes to weather patterns in the affected areas.
El Nino happens at irregular intervals of two to seven years, on average five years; when it takes place, it can last many months or more than a year.
In Malaysia, there were relatively stronger El Nino events in 1972, 1982, 1991 and 1997, with 1997 being the strongest year. Perhaps 2016 will rival or surpass that.
Malaysia’s daily mean temperature is between 26°C to 28°C, and at the lowlands temperatures are between 22.5°C at night and 33°C in the daytime, according to the biennial update report (BUR) that Malaysia submitted to the UN Climate Change Convention recently.
Over the past 43 years (1970-2013), there has been a trend of temperature increase in Malaysia. The surface mean temperature increase is around 0.14°C to 0.25°C per decade, according to the BUR report coordinated by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
This is indeed a very significant jump in temperature, as it implies a rise of 0.56°C to 1.0°C in just four decades. It indicates that “global warming” has already affected Malaysia.
The effects of the present heatwave may re-visit the country, in the future, even in periods where there is no El Nino.
On March 19, The Star reported that temperatures had jumped to 39°C in Kangar, 38°C in Alor Setar, 36°C in Penang and Ipoh, and 35°C in Johor Baru, Kota Baru and Kuala Lumpur.
Compare this with the normal average daytime mean temperature of 33°C. Imagine if this kind of heatwave temperature were to be permanent.
The following are among the effects of El Nino and potentially of climate change:
> Unbearably hot conditions in homes and work places without adequate air conditioning, resulting in health problems such as headaches, fever and even a few deaths.
> Among the most affected are infants and children, the elderly and those who are sick. Schools in some states were forced to close for some days when temperatures exceeded the unhealthy level.
> A decline or absence of rainfall, causing a drop in water levels in reservoirs, parched agricultural lands and delays in planting of rice. Water shortages may soon emerge.
> Decline in agricultural production. According to Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development (Mardi), a two-degree temperature rise could lead to a 13% reduction in padi yield. A 15% decline in seasonal rainfall could lead to a drop in yield of up to 80%.
> The rise in sea temperature has resulted in fish migrating, affecting fish catch, according to the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry.
> The heatwave results in more fires on agricultural land, forest and peatlands. Besides the damage caused, this also contributes to “haze”.
> Reduced water flow may increase the concentration of pollutants such as ammonia, organic and solid matter in streams and rivers. This may threaten marine life and the safety of water used for human consumption.
> There is greater intensity of energy use due to increased use of air conditioners to counter the heat. This makes it more difficult to control Greenhouse Gas emissions.
An emergency response plan for El Nino is being drawn up under a Cabinet committee. We also need a longer-term comprehensive strategy to deal with climate change, which will be more permanent than El Nino.
For example, the design of buildings needs to take into account increased temperatures, and building materials must have the quality to withstand increased heat.
The present heatwave gives us a glimpse of how climate change will affect Malaysia. It should thus add greater urgency to the tasks of climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Originally published in The Star.
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