Rising seas, melting glaciers

Across Asia, up to a billion people could be adversely affected by climate change

Years ago, the temple Khun Samut Chin sat in the middle of a vibrant community, near a school, a clinic, homes, and farms. Today, the monks still live in the temple, but their only neighbors are the fish that swim in the Gulf of Thailand.

The temple juts dramatically out of the ocean on a spit of land in the gulf in Samut Prakarn province, a few hours south of Bangkok. The only access to the community that the monks serve, which has retreated to higher ground, is a rickety footbridge.

Electricity lines that were once on land now run through the ocean near the temple. Some parts of the village that once surrounded the temple are now 4 meters underwater.

“For now, we are holding back the ocean,” said a 40-year-old monk in the temple, as he watched workers carefully reinforce and raise a surrounding seawall. “For the future, we don’t know.”

Land subsidence is thought to be the principal reason behind the disappearance of the village, but the rise in sea level caused by climate change is an additional factor. Those who study the impact of global warming on Asia say the little village that once surrounded the Khun Samut Chin temple could be a glimpse into the future for much of the region.

“If the ocean comes to take the temple, then it will come,” said the monk philosophically. “We are not worried.”

Like a Science Fiction Movie

But many people in Asia are worried, and for good reason. In neighboring Viet Nam, about 4.4% of the country’s land area – or 14,520 square kilometers – could be inundated by 2100 because of sea level rise linked to climate change, according to a study by the International Centre for Environmental Management, an environmental consulting firm based in Queensland, Australia.

Thirty-nine of Viet Nam’s 64 provinces and 6 of its 8

economic regions could be affected, according to the study. A staggering one fifth of the country’s communes may be inundated, mostly in the low-lying Mekong delta region, where more than 12,000 square kilometers may be underwater.

“A 1 meter sea level rise will cause inundation that directly affects almost 6 million people, or 7.3% of the national population,” said Jeremy Carew-Reid, the center’s director. “The most affected province would be Ho Chi Minh City, with more than 660,000 people – and likely many more – affected.”

The Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing reports that glaciers in Xinjiang and Tibet have shrunk by as much as 18% in the last 5 years. The melting, caused by global warming, has increased temperatures in the western portions of the country, the academy reports.

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a 2OC increase in air temperature in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could decrease rain-fed rice yields by 5-12% in the country.

The PRC is already feeling the impact of climate change in the form of powerful cyclones battering its coastlines. Fourteen of the country’s twenty-one extreme storm surges in the last half century have occurred since 1986.

In India, the fast-melting Himalayan glaciers hold more fresh water than that captured by the polar ice sheets. If these glaciers melt completely, summer and autumn water flow to the Ganges River could be cut by two thirds and leave an estimated 400 million people struggling to find drinking water.

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Rising seas, melting glaciers