Climate change and me: An Irishman in Malaysia

COP21: Last week, in what should be dry season, the paddy fields near my house overflowed

The climate and me: The UN climate change conference, COP21, begins in Paris today. Each day over the course of the two-week summit, Irish people living in regions most affected by climate change worldwide will share their observations. First up is Marc de Faoite, who lives in Langkawi, Malaysia.

As an equatorial country, Malaysia’s climate is relatively stable, with little variation in temperature throughout the year. As the country rapidly develops, the use of air-conditioning has become increasingly prevalent, leading to the running joke that there are two seasons in Malaysia: indoors and outdoors.

A more accurate description would include the annual monsoons, which provide the country with the rainfall necessary for agriculture, particularly the water-loving rice that grows in the fields around my house.

But the historically stable seasonal monsoons can no longer be counted on. Last week, in what should already be dry season, the padi fields overflowed. As I sloshed through ankle-deep water, I saw fish swimming past as they moved across the flooded road from one field to the next.

The National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia (NHRIM) reports a marked increase in rainfall intensity in the past 40 years, with a rise in temperatures of between 0.6c to 1.2c during the same period.

Flooding has become the new norm in many parts of the country, further exacerbated by rampant deforestation, due to vast tracts of virgin rainforest being converted into palm oil and rubber plantations. The worst floods on record occurred last year in Kelantan State, with tens of thousands forced to evacuate their homes. Almost a year later, many of these flood victims are still living in temporary accommodation.

The flipside of the changes in rainfall is the almost annual water rationing experienced in other parts of the country. It is not uncommon for the air force to carry out cloud-seeding in the hopes of provoking the rainfall needed to fill water reservoirs.

For the past two decades, Malaysia has experienced a new season. Locally referred to as the "haze", smoke from fires, set to clear land for palm oil plantations in Indonesia, is carried by prevailing winds across the Straits of Malacca.

Situated off the North Western coast, Langkawi, the island where I live, is usually spared the worst, but this year was exceptionally bad, with visibility last month dropping to a few hundred metres, and the air filled with the smell of wood smoke.

This year’s “haze” season is generally agreed to be the worst to date. Respiratory problems are rife. Schools, and even airports closed temporarily. Tourism, one of Malaysia’s major foreign currency earners, was affected, with thousands of tourists stranded on Langkawi and thousands more forced to cancel their hotel bookings because they were unable to travel.

That Malaysia only submitted INDC pledges for COP21 on Saturday, two days short of the deadline, speaks volumes on the importance accorded to climate change here. But this is unsurprising, with an economy largely based on oil, gas, timber, palm oil and rubber, all of which have powerful lobbying influences on governmental policies.

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