In a world of roiling climate change, events cannot be taken in isolation or viewed at a distance. Forest fires in South-east Asia, for example, represent not just a failure of governance but also a global setback for having released over a gigatonne of carbon dioxide last year alone, when cutting emissions was weighing on everyone's mind. And though these take place in remote areas, the putrid effects can be smelt all too keenly in Singapore and other cities in the region. Closer to home, when the heatwave in Malaysia was so acute that it led to the closure of 259 schools there, Singaporeans not only empathised with those affected but were also concerned about the dwindling level of water (at a low of 37 per cent at one point) in Johor's Linggiu Reservoir, which caters to half of Singapore's water needs.
For climate and its consequences, it's crucial to join the dots for the sake of properly understanding both disparate events and what might be done to weather difficulties. The heatwave is another harbinger of recurring extreme weather which will increasingly threaten global food and water supplies, coastal cities and areas prone to natural disasters. United States intelligence agencies expect a number of nations to be affected by unsettling social and political unrest as a result of climate change. In the wake of such devastation, millions of refugees might be on the march "over the next 20 to 30 years", French President Francois Hollande had warned last year.
Singaporeans, who have long learnt to plan well ahead, are already taking measures to guard against rising sea levels as a result of hotter temperatures that are melting polar ice caps. Minimum land reclamation levels have been raised and about three-quarters of coastal areas already have hard walls or stone embankments to help thwart erosion. These are necessary steps as eight of the world's 10 coastal cities at highest risk (in terms of the value of assets exposed to coastal flooding) are in Asia - like Mumbai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Bangkok. Tiny Singapore simply cannot afford to join that list.
It would be wrong, of course, to think that dams alone are sufficient to meet such challenges. The Dutch, who have more experience in flood control than most, have learnt not to view water issues in isolation but to take these together with other needs like shaping new living spaces. They have created water plazas which double as temporary reservoirs to curb flooding during exceptional downpours and also as activity spaces when the water is drained and the place dries out. Similarly, one should not just think in terms of supply during harsh spells, like desalination and Newater to help meet water needs. A focus on demand is also necessary as droughts might last for months at a time. Curbing usage and conservation of the earth's finite resources will be increasingly critical.