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Opinion

We cannot stop climate change, but we can be better prepared

Data and digital technology can help deliver more resilient infrastructure

| Singapore
Singapore has established a new coastal and flood protection fund to help protect the country against rising sea levels.   © AP

Based in Singapore, Stephanie Groen is Asia director of coastal & climate change in Asia for engineering, design and advisory company Aurecon.

Much has been said about the positive, if temporary, impact on the environment from lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working in the field of climate change and experiencing lockdown myself in Singapore, I was struck by two aspects of this. As a frequent runner, I encountered more wildlife on my daily runs than at any time during my 18 years in Singapore. The improvement in air quality too, was tangible. Not only did I sense it, I also saw the data firsthand on the myENV app from Singapore's National Environment Agency.

The situation got me thinking about our preparedness for the pandemic and our fixation with emissions in our approach to climate change. In our global response, we currently spend 20 times more on reducing emissions than building resilience to climate change; yet the impacts continue to worsen. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that we were woefully unprepared for a pandemic. We cannot afford to make the same mistake with climate change.

We already see the dramatic effects it has on the infrastructure in our towns and cities. For example, last year hydropower construction and intense dry weather saw the mighty Mekong reach its lowest level in a century, disrupting communities across South East Asia. Meanwhile in the Philippines, the strength of typhoons has increased 50% over the past 40 years. In 2019, the country contended with 20 of these, each causing widespread damage.

A coastal town devastated by super Typhoon Haiyan in Samar province, Philippines, pictured in November 2013: the strength of typhoons has increased 50% over the past 40 years.   © Reuters

Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions on Earth to the impacts of global warming. Its diverse geography and dense populations repeatedly face the full effects of climate change. Lives are being lost and the economic impact from more frequent and intense climate events is putting pressure on economies. We are now at the stage where we must invest more in building resilience and adaptation into our infrastructure, while maintaining our focus on emissions reduction.

There is good news: change is coming. Several governments are now prioritizing climate change adaptation initiatives. For example, in Hong Kong around $1 billion has been allocated to capital works for climate change, including measures to ensure public infrastructure is climate-ready. Singapore has established a new coastal and flood protection fund to help protect the country against rising sea levels, set up with an initial $3.7 billion budget. In Indonesia, the government is moving the capital out of Jakarta, which is sinking at a rate of 17 centimeters a year, and flood-proofing the city. In Vietnam there are plans to adapt infrastructure to new agricultural techniques and elevate houses above flood levels.

Getting these projects agreed is a great first step, but we need to think carefully about how they will be built. While we can all appreciate the need to develop future-ready infrastructure, the unpredictability and complexity of disasters present huge challenges in getting the design right.

This is where data and digital technologies can help shape infrastructure to not only meet the needs of today, but also tomorrow. Increasing numbers of infrastructure adaptation solutions are supported by digital technologies, such as models that use environmental and climate data to analyze and predict future changes in air and seawater temperature, rainfall inundation or sea level rise.

Having digital decision tools at our fingertips allows engineers to play with more scenarios such as simulating a flood caused by a tropical storm. We can look at what that means for assets and infrastructure, and assess how to protect critical infrastructure such as hospitals. We can also understand the costs of protecting the entire area from flooding versus only the most critical infrastructure.

Data and digital technologies also play a crucial role in planning, informing and strengthening emergency response preparedness for projects. They can strengthen early warning systems, as well as prioritize and accelerate disaster recovery and response efforts.

In Asia, we have a great opportunity to apply digital tools across the region's infrastructure by adapting proven methods. This is where the work undertaken by both the Hong Kong and Singapore governments could be of great value. It will enable countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines to move straight into using digital decision systems for climate adaptation.

It is also crucial that appropriate funds are available to implement what is most critical. We have seen positive progress under the supervision of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, but the desire to reinvent the wheel when it comes to technology and solutions causes too many delays. We must move away from this to drive better efficiency in engineering our cities of tomorrow.

By creating climate ready, resilient infrastructure and utilizing data and digital technology, we can deliver a better future for our countries and cities. Through tapping into knowledge that is already available and establishing partnerships, digital innovations come to the fore more rapidly and in many cases can be applied instantly.

While governments will never be able to reduce the strength of a typhoon, with more resilient infrastructure and better use of data and digital technologies, it is possible to change the way countries and communities adapt and recover from extreme weather.

A new approach to infrastructure, with a focus on climate change adaptation and technological solutions, will unlock new opportunities, avoid losses and realize significant economic, environmental and social benefits.

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