Battered Asia faces more catastrophic storms

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The Independent Online

By Geoffrey Lean

By Geoffrey Lean

07 November 1999

As the people of the flood-hit Indian state of Orissa and Vietnam count their dead this weekend, top scientists are warning that last week's catastrophic Asian inundations are only a foretaste of what is to come.

A new report by Britain's Meteorological Office, presented to key negotiations on tackling global warming in Bonn last week, warns that flooding will increase more than ninefold over the next decades. Four-fifths of the increase, the report adds, will be in south and south-east Asia, the very areas hit by floods last week. In both places, the death tolls are still increasing.

Officials say nearly 1,400 bodies have so far been recovered in Orissa, in eastern India, but the number is expected to increase sharply, as rescue workers have yet to reach the worst-hit areas. In Vietnam the official death toll stands at 416, but the waters are still rising in the worst floods for a century.

From the air yesterday, central Vietnam's ancient city of Hue and its surrounding areas looked like a shimmering patchwork of lakes, laced with strings of telephone poles. After the fiercest downpour ever recorded in the region, rice paddies had been turned into coffee-brown rivers, with only the rooftops of submerged homes breaking the surface of the waters. In Hue itself the Perfume River has broken its banks, cutting off the historic Citadel area, which can now only be reached by boat.

Relief workers were yesterday racing to take advantage of a brief lull in the storms to get emergency supplies to stranded people. With more rain forecast, they said most of the inhabitants of an entire region of seven million people face food shortages, lack of safe water, and disease.

The military has been mobilised to get some 8,400 tons of food to the flood victims before the rains resume. "We have got a window of opportunity to get this food and water out there," said Eelko Brouwer, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Vietnam's deputy prime minister, Pham Gia Khiem, added that 900,000 people in the province of Thua Thien-Hue were living in the open and had eaten no rice in three days.

Meanwhile, malnutrition and disease is spreading through Orissa, hit by a violent cyclone nine days ago. "There are a large number of gastroenteric cases," the state's principal health secretary, Meena Gupta, said yesterday. "People who have not eaten anything for the past eight days are drinking the contaminated water, and this could cause further problems."

The authorities have started air-dropping medicines to cut-off areas, with instructions on how to use them. Half of the 15 million people hit by the floods have yet to be reached, officials said. In many areas the air is filled with the stench of bloated corpses and the rotting carcasses of cattle.

"It will be weeks before the debris and waste can be really cleared up," said one state official. "By that time epidemics are inevitable."

Yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, warned that the floods were just one more sign that global warming was on its way. He is worried that progress is too slow towards finalising the treaty agreed in Kyoto two years ago to cut emissions of the pollution that causes climate change, and fears that unless it speeds up the agreement could fail.

The Meteorological Office's report spells out the consequences of failure, as global warming causes sea levels to rise and increases the likelihood of violent storms of the type that devastated Orissa and Vietnam. It says that at present some 10 million people are flooded each year, and that this will rise to 94 million if emissions of carbon dioxide and the other gases that cause global warming continue unchecked. Three-fifths of these people will live in south Asia and another fifth in south-east Asia.

The report adds that the number of victims - though still very much more than now - would fall to between 19 and 34 million each year, if the world took strong measures to stop the pollution building up in the atmosphere.

Floods are already increasing worldwide, with last week's inundations just the latest tragedies in what has been a terrible two years.

Last year was the worst on record, with 96 floods in 55 countries, including the worst around China's Yangtse River in half a century, and the most long-lasting on record in Bangladesh.

This year Bangladesh was hit again, with over two million people affected. On average catastrophic floods are hitting the country every two or three years - partly because of the cutting down of forests in the Himalayas - compared with once every half century when the environment was largely undisturbed.

In all, the number of disasters worldwide has risen threefold in the last 10 years - ironically designated by the United Nations as the International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction - and their cost, even allowing for inflation, has soared ninefold.

Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee, representing 11 charities, is to launch an appeal for the victims of Orissa on Tuesday.