Lately, when I water my frangipani tree all I can think about is how I’ve never had to water it before. The last time Singapore had a February as dry as this year’s was 1869.
Singapore is a tropical island very close to the equator and we get about 92 inches of rain a year. Right now, it’s the dry season. Typically in the dry season, instead of raining every day, it rains every other day. Just not this year.
The wacky weather shouldn’t come as a surprise. All over the world, we’ve been experiencing extreme weather systems, everything from polar vortexes – I hear it’s still cold in New York City – to severe typhoons to weird wildfires. The world climate science community this week concluded that the world is ill-prepared to face the threats brought about by climate change – extreme heat bursts, stronger storm surges, unusual precipitation patterns, and strained power grids, communication networks and health services.
We’re starting to get a taste of how things might go wrong in the future, even when climate change doesn’t leave direct fingerprints on the scene of the crime.
When the Great Thai Flood hit in 2011, I was working with a magazine that published local language editions across Asia. I was responsible for five offices in Asia, including one in downtown Bangkok. It was Thailand’s worst flood in five decades.
The flooding actually started in the north in May and continued to flow into January 2012. More than 13 million people were affected, with 65 of Thailand’s 77 provinces submerged, including seven major industrial estates north of Bangkok. The October to December quarter saw Thailand’s GDP contracting a whopping 9% while Japanese firms with local plants including Honda, Toyota, Canon and Hitachi suffered massive losses.
The initial floods didn’t affect our business. That just felt like the typical monsoon. But by October, the floods hadn’t abated, and there were murmurs of the waters approaching Bangkok. Sunee, the managing editor in Bangkok wasn’t overly concerned. A little water never hurt anyone in Thailand, right? The problem was, it wasn’t a little water. It was a hell of a lot.
By early November, land just north of Bangkok was inundated. The Chao Praya river had breached its banks. The government was desperately trying to keep downtown Bangkok dry. My daily conversations with Sunee were surreal. It went something like this:
Me: “I think we need to close down the office and bring your core team to Singapore to finish this month’s edition.”
Sunee: “That may not work. We can’t get to the airport because the roads are flooded.” We kept our staff in Bangkok, moving them to a nearby hotel to work. We managed to publish on time.
Distribution was a separate migraine, with postal services disrupted and, worse, the magazines in danger of getting drenched. It was a huge learning experience for me as a manager, both in terms of human resources as well as logistics. I blew my budget that year. There was no way around it. And this wasn’t even an abrupt crisis. It started in May and culminated in December.
No one had, or could have, imagined the massive disruption the floods inflicted socially and economically, totaling almost $46 billion in damages, according to the World Bank.
Three years later, and 900 miles away from Bangkok, there’s haze and bush fires in a nation known more for overwhelming humidity. The monsoon season is coming to Singapore and the question is, will we swing from one weather extreme to another? And if yes, how prepared are we to deal with whatever’s thrown our way?
It’s enough to make my frangipani tree wilt.