Countries need to protect themselves from climate change before disasters happen: Panel

A mudslide in Petropolis, Brazil, in February. Panellists said payoff from investing in climate resilience is certain. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - There will always be some uncertainty when countries put in place climate adaptation measures, as to when or to what extent such preemptive protection will be needed - but payoff from investing in climate resilience is certain, said climate change planners.

Waiting till after a disaster strikes to take action would be too late, they said at a Singapore International Water Week panel at Marina Bay Sands on Tuesday (April 19).

The five panellists, from countries including South Africa, the United States and the Philippines, discussed how countries should adapt to extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

Mr Piet Dircke, global director of climate adaptation at design and engineering consultancy Arcadis, has witnessed cities and federal administration finally deciding to deal with flooding only a day after the disaster occurred.

"And that's unfortunately the worst moment from a perspective of cost benefits," said Mr Dircke.

"Investment into climate resilience really pays off," he added, citing New Orleans and the Netherlands as examples of areas that escaped relatively unscathed from deadly flooding last year.

When Hurricane Ida devastated the US last year, flood defences in New Orleans that cost the government US$14.5 billion (S$19.5 billion) withstood the hurricane's 240kmh winds, storm surge and heavy rains.

The toughest test of the infrastructure came 16 years after it was strengthened when the city's defences failed against Hurricane Katrina.

In 2005, the storm cost the city billions, left over 1,800 people dead and more than 80 per cent of the city submerged.

Likewise, the Netherlands' government has spent billions of euros to increase river capacity since 2007, which helped the nation become the only country affected by severe flooding in Europe last year to have no casualties, said Mr Dircke.

He added: "In both cases, the government simply started doing something at a certain point, not being 100 per cent sure of what to prevent for. That will always be the case."

To overcome the challenges of climate change, international and local government bodies need to plan years ahead and drive a concerted effort to adapt, said panellists.

Panellist Debra Roberts, co-chair of a working group under the United Nations' top climate science body, said national governments need to take the lead and provide local governments with both guidance and funding.

"Because of our multiple pressures that we're dealing with, generally we're not going to move in a particular direction unless a policy tells us we've got to go there."

Their comments come as Singapore shores up its protection against rising sea levels triggered by climate change.

The island-state has made extensive studies and invested heavily in enhancing its coastal defences over the past three years.

Sea levels are projected to rise by up to 1m by the next century, a recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned.

In Singapore, this could rise by as much as 4m to 5m if other factors are accounted for, according to national water agency PUB.

About 30 per cent of the island is lower than 5m above sea level, making rising sea levels a significant risk.

In 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said $100 billion or more may be needed over the long term for the Republic to address this challenge.

An initial injection of $5 billion into a coastal and flood protection fund was announced a year later.

Speaking at the panel on Tuesday, PUB deputy chief executive for policy and development Chua Soon Guan said Singapore intends to build up its research and development ecosystem in coastal protection.

It will explore the integration of nature based solutions with hard engineering solutions to provide effective and timely protection against climate change.

On Monday, PUB launched an open call for proposals to apply emerging sensor technologies such as satellite imagery and radar to collect and analyse coastal and inland flood data sets.

Mr Chua added: "The question really is how to ensure adequate and timely protection of Singapore coastlines, while at the same time, because of the uncertainty, we need to preserve flexibility for us to adapt to future developments in terms of climate science, technology and engineering."

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