Climate of change: Stories from ground zero

Climate change is here and now. The Sunday Times' network of correspondents, who have spent the last six months investigating the impact of global warming around the world, are bringing you their stories from ground zero, starting today.

It was once a thriving village by the sea, where a good income from fish and prawn farming meant residents could enjoy attractive homes with spacious yards.

Now, Pantai Bahagia, which means "happy beach" in Bahasa Indonesia, is anything but that. One-third of the settlement in Bekasi district, just outside Jakarta, has been swallowed by water.

Regional correspondent Arlina Arshad, who travelled there earlier this year to witness first-hand how the area has been hit by climate change, was sceptical at first.

"I saw some houses only slightly submerged in water, just ankle deep. 'Is this it?' I asked a villager," she recounted.

The man, Wawan, pointed to concrete and metal structures in the distance poking just above the water's surface.

"That's the roof of a house," he said. "The village has already drowned, Lina. Everything is now underwater."

Experts predict that those living in Asia's coastal regions could face some of the worst effects of global warming, and hundreds of millions of people are likely to lose their homes as floods and rising sea levels sweep the region.

Like Ms Arlina, even seasoned Sunday Times journalists who spent the last six months investigating the impact of climate change around the world were shocked by the scale of the damage being wrought.

The world authority on the issue has warned of worse to come, much worse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released its latest report this month, said that to avoid catastrophe, all countries must change the way their people eat, travel, work and build - and the changes must happen immediately. Any further delays will condemn economies and ecosystems to deadlier weather extremes, habitat loss, falling crop yields and ever higher sea levels.

Officials will meet in Katowice, Poland, in December at a summit called COP24 to finalise a global deal in which all nations play a role in cutting greenhouse gas emissions to curb the pace of climate change.

But governments move slowly - COP24 comes three years after the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, where nations agreed to halt the rise in temperatures to "well below" 2 deg C - 1.5 deg C, if possible.

In a world that has already warmed about 1 deg C since pre-industrial times, the stories from ground zero are clear.

Said The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, who is also editor-in-chief of the English/Malay/Tamil Media Group of Singapore Press Holdings: "Climate change is happening here and now. Many of us worry about what might be done to safeguard our planet for generations to come.

"We wanted to bring this issue home to our readers.

"So ST deployed some of our best reporters, photographers and videographers, designers and graphic artists, to tell the story of how global warming is impacting the lives of people around our part of the world.

"The series of reports they came back with makes for compelling and thought-provoking reading."

ST got 19 of its journalists to travel to 17 spots around the world to look at the human suffering, the trends and the edgiest tools being employed to slow the march of climate change.

What they learnt is that while the situation is grim, all is not lost - organisations and individuals are making a difference.

For assistant foreign editor David Fogarty and executive photojournalist Mark Cheong, it was a shock to see the damage Australia's Great Barrier Reef has suffered from bleaching - where corals turn white due to high water temperatures.

Bleaching episodes in just two summers have killed off half of all shallow-water corals in the northern and central sections - an area spanning more than 1,000km, or over 20 times the length of Singapore. This was the impact of climate change on a vast scale.

But, noted Mr Fogarty, it was also reassuring to see other areas still bursting with colourful corals and fish. "And in many other spots you could see tiny juvenile corals taking root, an example of the reef trying to recover; there was hope that the reef is still resilient," he said.

In the face of a stark and worrying future, scientists aren't giving up.

"I was struck by their determination to help corals survive a hotter world by enhancing their natural ability to adapt to changing conditions," he said.

The initial findings are positive, and the researchers hope that their efforts will buy the reef some time.

But ultimately, everyone must play a part, from the individual who decides to eat less meat and use less electricity to the government that makes the shift towards renewable energy.

As environment correspondent Audrey Tan, who saw residents band together to avert a water crisis in South Africa's Cape Town, said: "That gives me hope. Mankind caused climate change, maybe we could be the ones that save the earth too."

  • Through six weekly multimedia packages of text, photos, videos, infographics and a dedicated microsite, ST correspondents will bring you the human stories of climate change. Today, the first part - A Reef In Peril - looks at how global warming is killing the Great Barrier Reef and how scientists are fighting to save it.


Warming seas are killing the Great Barrier Reef

Dead corals in one of the outer reefs off Port Douglas in Queensland. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

"I'm Australian and yet I had never seen the Great Barrier Reef. When I finally did, I was blown away by what I saw. I was immediately struck by its immense scale and beauty and the abundance of life that stretched on almost endlessly under the waves. I was also filled with a mix of guilt and fear. Climate change has badly damaged parts of the reef and I am part of a society responsible for that. The next generation might not be able to enjoy the reef as it is now.

Even after several bouts of bleaching, the reef still has large areas in good condition. But the clock is definitely ticking. I was also struck by the many people we met who are so passionate about protecting it, from scientists trying to make corals more heat-tolerant to tour operators whose livelihoods depend on a healthy reef. Everyone wants stronger climate action to limit global warming."



Making every drop count to avert a water catastrophe

Low water level at Theewaterskloof Dam in South Africa on June 7. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

"Despite the initial anger and fear among Cape Town's residents when Day Zero, the day when taps would run dry, was looming, many cooperated with strict water-saving measures, with some even going beyond the call of duty. Even tourists were inspired to bathe out of buckets instead of using running water.

Many cities around the world will face the same challenges brought about by climate change, but the worst thing is that the poorest places and people will bear the brunt of this burden.

Yet, Cape Town's example has shown the power of the individual in making an impact. That gives me hope. Mankind caused climate change, maybe we could be the ones that save the earth too."



Rogue weather is claiming lives, homes and livelihoods

Mr Tran Dang building a new house in Vietnam, where many have lost homes due to climate change. PHOTO: LAN PHUONG

"I have been covering the Mekong Delta and several areas in the Mekong Lower Basin for about 10 years. The rapid change in the landscape is becoming more dramatic every year. Some islets and islands in the middle of Tien River in Dong Thap province, a tributary of the Mekong River, have disappeared completely into the river. People lost houses and became climate refugees right in the richest and most nutritious area of the Mekong River. Witnessing their plight was the hardest thing for me.

But individuals can make a difference. One man has planted trees, one by one, all his life, in an area which has now grown into a huge forest in Long An province. It has become a natural sanctuary for birds and a place where nature seems to be gaining its precious balance back.

We need to change ourselves and, in turn, the environment will support us."

CORRESPONDENT LAN PHUONG, who was in Dong Thap province, Vietnam


Erratic weather is threatening rice harvests

Farmer Bernado Pelayo in his rice field in Layong Mabilog village, Maragondon, Philippines. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

"In an upland farm of Maragondon, Philippines, a farmer recounted to me how a shorter strain of rice - bred to increase yield - gave him backaches, as he had to bend lower to harvest it.

I was impressed by the forward-looking work of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, a Philippines-headquartered organisation that was working closely with farmers and schools to get them acquainted with a greater variety of indigenous and new crops that are more resilient to climate stresses.

It takes many things to work together to adapt to climate change. It is fine to create super rice, for example, but super rice is useless if farmers are too indebted to adopt them, or do not have the places to store and transport grain beyond their homesteads.

The people most affected by climate change need to play a key role in shaping solutions. These solutions can be incremental, but must be holistic."

INDOCHINA BUREAU CHIEF TAN HUI YEE, who was in Maragondon, Philippines


A warming planet is spreading deadly disease

Cases of dengue have even been reported in mountainous areas 2,500m above sea level in Nepal. PHOTO: REUTERS

"How quickly the situation on the ground can change, especially when an infectious disease is being spread by a hardy, adaptable creature like the mosquito.

Nepal, for one thing, had its first reported case of dengue in 2004. Just six years later, there was an outbreak. This was followed by a second outbreak in 2013 and a third in 2016. There have even been dengue cases reported in mountainous areas 2,500m above sea level.

We sometimes talk about climate change as though it is something that will only really affect our children or grandchildren. The example of Nepal shows that this is clearly not the case."



Who is winning the battle between clean and dirty energy?

The world's largest solar plant in Pavagada, India, has brought renewed hope to locals. PHOTO: SAGGERE RADHAKRISHNA

"Renewable energy is not generating enough electricity yet in India. It accounts for just around 10 per cent of the country's electricity generation, with coal accounting for the vast majority. Coal will remain a balancing power for years to come. But the scale at which India is leapfrogging to adopt renewable energy is impressive. At a time when the United States is backtracking on its international commitments, it is encouraging to see India step up on its stated climate change goals and even seek to better them.

What gave me the most hope is the positive impact renewable energy has had on communities across India. I saw it for myself in Pavagada, the site of the world's largest solar plant. Before the park was set up, the region had little hope for a turnaround. One of the worst drought-hit areas of southern India, Pavagada saw mounting crop losses and farmers leaving. The park has been set up on land leased from them, which has brought a sustained income to the locals. It has also created new job opportunities, starting a trend of people returning to their villages."

INDIA CORRESPONDENT DEBARSHI DASGUPTA, who travelled to Pavagada, India.


Dicing with death: A reef in peril

Great Barrier Reef: The promise of science

Coral reefs and other ecosystems: A global wipe-out

Corals that keep their cool in warming seas

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 21, 2018, with the headline ST Climate of Change series: Stories from ground zero. Subscribe