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Experts Emphasize the Need to Work with Nature to Save Asia’s ‘Disappearing Deltas’

Mounting research blames a confluence of rising sea levels driven by global warming and the damming and dredging of key rivers

Nature, Asia, Deltas
This picture taken on March 28, 2015 shows boats carrying visitors along the Amphawa canal, a small tributary of the Mae Khlong River, in Samut Songkhram province some 80 kilometers west of Bangkok. VOA

Water and climate experts from across Asia are stressing the need to work with nature, rather than against it, to save the continent’s “disappearing deltas,” home to some 400 million people.

Mounting research blames a confluence of rising sea levels driven by global warming and the damming and dredging of key rivers and their tributaries for the rapid sinking and shrinking of Asia’s seven major delta systems, from the Indus in Pakistan to the Pearl in China.

The experts say swelling cities are adding to the pressure by weighing down the deltas and sucking up groundwater. The seven deltas alone host 14 of the world’s 33 megacities, including Bangkok, where the experts are gathered this week, parts of which are sinking by 2 centimeters a year.

Losing the deltas will not only erase some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, experts add, but drive mass migration, deplete vital farmland and disrupt some of Asia’s most dynamic business hubs.

Nature, Asia, Deltas
With the threat of rising sea levels, Indian villagers prepare soil bags for mangrove seedlings at a Mangrove Nursery, at the village of Mathurakhand, some 125 kilometers southeast of Kolkata on Feb. 10, 2008. VOA

The Pearl River Delta, which empties into the South China Sea past Hong Kong, has been dubbed the “world’s workshop” for its abundance of busy factories. In Vietnam, forecasters say 1 million people will have to leave the Mekong River Delta, the country’s rice bowl, by 2050.

“These are some of the most vulnerable places to climate change and change across river systems, but they are also the home for a number of us who live here, they are also the breadbasket of the world that feeds a number of the countries that depend on them,” said Kavita Prakash-Mani, global conservation director for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“So while we are worried about numerous ecosystems around the world, we really need to be putting special attention on our delta systems and the wetlands and all the other ecosystems they support,” she added.

The WWF is hosting a three-day forum in Bangkok, which started Wednesday, to help researchers and policymakers from across Asia tackle the problem, learn from each other and brainstorm new and better ways to save the deltas.

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The environmental protection group and others are pushing the idea of “building with nature,” where nature is used to cope with climate change — think mangrove seeding to cushion coastal communities from floods — and development falls in step with the natural world’s rhythms.

“So it’s not just about building high walls and keeping the water out. It is really about restoration — restoring wetlands, mangroves, rivers and enabling them to flow, enabling them to create the kind of deltas that we want, [and] the resilience that comes from that and the protection it will then afford us from rising sea levels. It is one of our best solutions,” said Prakash-Mani.

Anamitra Anurag Danda, a senior visiting fellow on climate change at India’s Observer Research Foundation, said protecting deltas means not only adapting to rising sea levels but taking care of the rivers that feed them.

He said the rivers and tributaries of India’s Ganges Delta, part of the largest delta system in the world, “have been either dammed or barraged, and therefore the sediment that would otherwise have built the delta does not reach the delta.”

Nature, Asia, Deltas
This UNICEF photo taken on May 21, 2008 shows fields inundated with water at an undisclosed location in the Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar. VOA

Between that and a thirsty city of Kolkata drawing hundreds of millions of liters of water daily out of the ground, the delta lost 16,300 hectares of land in the 40 years leading up to 2009, said Anurag Danda, who also advises the WWF.

He said more sinking and shrinking of the deltas was “inevitable,” and it would mean retreating from some areas to give them time to recover.

But that won’t be practical everywhere.

“It’s not just building with nature,” said Stuart Orr, a WWF freshwater expert. “Of course we need traditional infrastructure as well. But we need to be thinking a lot more intelligently about how we modify our river systems and our delta systems, and allow that new science to creep into our decision-making and investments.”

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Tiziana Bonapace, with the U.N. Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific, said better climate modeling, early warning systems and other hi-tech solutions could prove “game changers” in helping the many millions who call the deltas home stay put and stay safe.

She said her office was now working across 15 Asian countries to improve flood forecasting for the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta System, drawing attention to the need for countries to work together.

Seri Suptharathit, of the Center on Climate Change and Disaster at Thailand’s Rangsit University, said the governments of those countries also had to work harder at thinking about the problem and its solutions in terms of generations, rather than election cycles.

“Politics thinks only to four years, but this is 30 years, 80 years. How [do] we ask them to think for the future, for the young generation?” he said.

Should they fail, Seri quipped wryly, guests arriving at any forum on Asia’s sinking and shrinking deltas in Bangkok three or four decades hence may have to make the trip by boat. (VOA)

Next Story

Despite Growing Technology, AI Divides the Rich and Poor in Asia

Asia Catches up on AI but Digital Divide Remains Between Rich and Poor

The earliest fans of the internet wondered if it could be a democratizing technology, giving all people access to information, regardless of their income, social status, or level of freedom under their governments. Pixabay

The earliest fans of the internet wondered if it could be a democratizing technology, giving all people access to information, regardless of their income, social status, or level of freedom under their governments. Today another computer technology — artificial intelligence — raises similar questions, depending on whether it will bring benefits for all, or worsen the inequality already in place.

A new report, jointly released by Google, INSEAD business school, and Adecco recruiters, tackles those questions by ranking nations and cities based on how well they attract people to their workforce by investing in technology like AI. Asian nations shot up the Global Talent Competitiveness Index in 2020 compared to 2019, particularly developing nations. That has led observers to a two-pronged conclusion marked by cautious optimism: on the one hand, poorer nations can use this technology to get ahead; on the other hand, if people become complacent, the technological advantage could stay in rich nations.

“As talent becomes increasingly fluid and mobile, some early AI adopters could leverage this to become more talent competitive,” Bruno Lanvin, executive director of global indices at INSEAD, said, “however there are also signs that the ubiquity of AI is amplifying current imbalances and inequalities.”

Most large nations in Asia improved their rankings this year, including China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The index assigns nations a score for each of dozens of indicators, such as how much technical education and training they provide, the amount of technology transfer they enable, and the level of social mobility.

Singapore is the only Asian nation to make the top 10 in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index based on its technology. VOA

The reason observers have drawn mixed conclusions from the index is that there is opportunity for developing nations to improve, but it is limited. For instance Malaysia got higher marks this year because it does a good job of matching workforce needs with talent. However the report authors say it “would benefit from higher tolerance and greater opportunities for minorities and immigrants.”

What the authors call most “worrying,” though, is the risk of a widening gap between rich and poor in terms of which nations are best preparing to use artificial intelligence. Rich city-state Singapore is the only Asian nation to break the top 10 of the index released last month. In the part of the study focused on cities, high-income Tokyo and Hong Kong are the best performing in the region.

Developing nations are able to make some progress because, at a lower level, technology is accessible and cheap. India and the Philippines, for instance, have become global call centers and IT outsourcing hubs, and it is relatively easy for their citizens to pick up basic coding skills regardless of their income.

However when technology needs move beyond just coding skills, more investment and resources help. Artificial intelligence, in particular, relies on massive amounts of data to be input and computer power to crunch the data. Nations and companies that amass that data, and the highly-paid professionals who can understand it, have such an advantage that it might become too hard for others to catch up in the future.“

When technology needs move beyond just coding skills, more investment and resources help. VOA

AI also will affect people’s jobs and change the nature of work,”

Kent Walker, senior vice president of Google, said. “We need to anticipate these changes and take steps to prepare for them.”

Google has exactly such an AI advantage. It has been able to collect many photos to input into and improve its image recognition algorithms, for instance, at a level that would be hard for other companies to match.

The authors released the global talent index in hopes of highlighting the digital divide, as well as providing recommendations on how to solve it. They say to prevent people from being left behind, developing nations can focus on vocational training and lifelong learning, and not just for lower-skilled tech jobs like coding. People can learn to do work that is complemented — not replaced — by robots; machines may be able to move a syringe into position, but patients will still want human nurses to oversee the injection, for instance.

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“The human role in the world of work is being augmented by technology rather than substituted by it,” Alain Dehaze, CEO of the Adecco Group, said.

At a government level, nations should agree on the rules and principles that guide AI research and uses, such as the need for data protection, the report said. That would increase the odds that new technologies are advanced in the interest of humans. (VOA)