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Making effective decisions in a changing climate

This piece originally appeared on the Bangkok Post website.

A third of Thailand is under water. Epic floods have taken people's lives, destroyed businesses and crops, and are now sweeping into Bangkok.

As the capital braces itself, some people are beginning to point fingers at various culprits: the unusually heavy rains possibly linked to climate change, ineffective communications within government, and poor infrastructure decisions. It will take time to sort out the main causes, though it will most likely turn out that a combination of factors led to this degree of devastation.

While the floods are the worst in several decades, this is not an isolated example. Around the world, extreme weather events, from droughts in the Horn of Africa to wildfires in Brazil, along with other long-term impacts related to climate change, are having a dramatic effect on people and ecosystems.

Resilience in the face of such challenges will be determined in part by how national-level decision-makers both react to and prepare for immediate events and more gradual changes.

This is the topic of a major new report, World Resources 2010-2011: Decision Making in a Changing Climate, which investigates how national leaders can make effective decisions to adapt to climate change.

In looking at the current crisis in Thailand, we find strong links with specific examples in the report, particularly around three areas that provide lessons related to the potential culprits above: increased resilience to flooding, improved communication across government, and more effective infrastructure siting choices.

Increasing resilience to flooding

While we cannot say definitively that the current intense rainfall and flooding is linked to climate change, this likely won't be the last time Thailand will witness floods of such magnitude, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even beyond changes in monsoon patterns, a modest amount of sea level rise is projected to significantly flood low-lying areas of Southeast Asia, including Thailand.

Thai leaders, therefore, have to prepare for extreme events along with longer-term impact associated with rising seas. What can be done to prepare for such changes?

Vietnam offers some useful lessons. In Vietnam, government officials have advanced programmes to proactively plant mangroves along its coasts as a protective barrier to future sea-level rise and storms. From 2001 to 2008, this project added 15,000 hectares of new mangrove forest. This measure has gained particular traction in southern Vietnam, where mangrove restoration was coupled with the construction of schools, health clinics and roads, and the provision of more electricity.

Improving communication across government

Extreme events require urgent deployment of financial resources and emergency supplies to reach the most affected communities. To be effective, governments must have systems that communicate horizontally across departments and vertically across levels of government.

In Brazil's Acre state, for example, the government established an emergency response "situation room" which not only enhanced coordination but also set up an information clearinghouse, with 24-hour satellite data to inform firefighters about hotspots of fire activity. Interestingly, the situation room was subsequently used for floods, demonstrating that such institutions should be designed to address multiple hazards.

Making effective infrastructure siting choices

Despite the clear links between human well-being and ecosystems, many countries have not prioritised the maintenance of ecosystem services when deciding where to site large infrastructure and plot urban expansion.

An example from South Africa shows, however, that short-sighted choices can be avoided. The government of South Africa has developed a strategy that can help avoid exacerbating the risks posed by climate change. To do so, it has developed spatially explicit maps of ecosystems to better understand where conservation should be prioritised, for example to maintain river and coastal corridors, versus where other land uses should proceed. This information is fed directly into land use planning guidelines and will ultimately be integrated into planning decisions, such as land use zoning, laws and regulations.

The goal is to ensure that the design of industry and expansion of urban centers, agriculture and other land types will maintain critical ecosystems that can help reduce the risk of hazards such as flooding.

While the global response to climate change remains both too slow and too timid, these examples indicate how some countries are coming to grips with the changing climate.

None of these lessons, of course, can undo the current catastrophe in Thailand, which tragically has taken the lives of nearly 400 people and will cost hundreds of billions of baht in damages.

In the aftermath, the government and public will surely assess what happened and how they can be better prepared for the next disaster.

Hopefully, we can use these lessons to make more effective decisions to adapt to our changing planet before it is too late.

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