Scrums, rucks and resilience!

By Dean Muruven, Freshwater Policy Manager, WWF

Scrum down @ Jolon Penna

If the words scrum and ruck are foreign to you then you’re probably not following the Rugby World Cup currently underway in Japan. But you might have heard about it for reasons that have got nothing to do with points and prizes, and everything to do with natural disasters.

Either way, let me quickly bring you up to speed. The tournament, which is the premier event in every rugby fan’s calendar, kicked off in September and we’re now into the business end with the quarter finals being played this weekend. As a South African, I’ll be paying very special attention when South Africa plays Japan on Sunday in what should be another thrilling encounter.

But apart from the unexpected brilliance of the host nation, much of the talk has focused on what is unique about this World Cup — it is the first time since the tournament began back in 1987 that any Rugby World Cup match has been cancelled. And the reason? Typhoon Hagibis.

Super Typhoon Hagibis just before it smashed into Japan

For thousands of rugby fans waking up at odd hours around the world to cheer on their favourite teams only to find the games had been washed out, Hagibis was an inconvenience. Tragically, its impacts were far more devastating for those on the frontline. The typhoon is the most powerful to hit Japan since 1958 with a staggering 635 mm of rainfall falling in some parts of the country in a weekend. More than 50 people lost their lives and thousands have been displaced.

The final economic cost of the storm won’t be clear for a while, but what we do know is that the global financial costs from hurricane and typhoon damage have skyrocketed in recent years. According to Munich Re in 2017, Atlantic hurricanes caused US$230 billion in damage, mostly in the United States. Last year, Pacific typhoons resulted in US $30 billion worth of damage across Asia.

If you look through photographs and videos showing the impacts of Hagibis, there is one central element to most of them — water. This is no coincidence. Just last month, the Global Commission on Adaptation released its flagship report, which reminded us that that the effects of climate change will most immediately and acutely be expressed through water.

Typhoon Hagibis caused huge devastation and left over 50 people dead

Our new normal means storms like Hagibis will become more common and occur at a pace that surprises us all. Despite the devastation caused by Hagibis, Japan is one of the countries best equipped to handle natural disasters. Others are far less able to cope with — and adapt to — the impacts of climate change.

In particular, Asia’s great deltas are growing more vulnerable to climate disasters, which will expose some 400 million people and 10 mega cities to significant risk. Since 1988 over 300,000 people in Asian deltas have been killed by tropical cyclones. In 2015, flooding and landslides in the Irrawaddy delta alone killed almost 120 people and displaced 1.6 million, severely damaging agriculture and infrastructure. Forecasts indicate that more than 1 million people will relocate from the Mekong delta by 2050 because of sea level rise.

This paints a pretty bleak picture, but we can help stop these deltas from sinking and shrinking. Our new normal requires a new approach. Previous attempts to shore up Asia’s deltas have largely focused on treating the symptoms rather than addressing the root causes of the crisis: the interruption of the dynamic, natural processes — particularly sediment flow in rivers — that build deltas and can keep them above rising seas.

What we need now is an ambitious public private initiative to promote sustainable solutions at scale to tackle the systemic threats facing these deltas not just in coastal areas but also, critically upstream.

Major initiative to help stop Asia’s great deltas from sinking and shrinking @ Simon Rawles / WWF

Which is exactly what the Resilient Asian Deltas (RAD) initiative seeks to achieve. Like the rugby world cup, the first regional Forum on RAD is currently underway. Over 130 participants from government, business, communities and civil society across the continent and beyond have gathered in Bangkok to develop this bold new approach. By dealing with the root causes of the crisis facing these dynamic ecosystems, RAD will help to ensure that these deltas continue to support hundreds of millions of people, productive agriculture and fisheries, and thriving economies as well as sustain their rich biodiversity.

The initiative will be built on three core pillars:

1. Securing political leadership, commitments and action — resilient management must be central to the political agenda in Asia. There is momentum being created with the Prime Minister of Vietnam launching a strategy for Sustainable and Climate-Resilient Development of the Mekong Delta in 2017 but we need to move faster or we just might see more of Asia’s countries relocating their capital cities as Indonesia is doing with Jakarta — one of the fastest sinking cities in the world.

2. Implementing building with nature solutions — we must strike a balance between engineered and nature-based solutions. We can no longer afford to implement engineered solutions that constrain natural processes, they are too costly and unsustainable. The US state of Louisiana is already doing precisely that, by seeking to fight coastal erosion by mimicking nature.

3. Mobilize financing to turn vision into action — we cannot transform the future of Asia’s deltas without the financial resources to implement national delta plans. And the reason why it makes (business) sense to redirect financial flows is pretty clear. Let’s take just one example. The Pearl River Delta —known as the world’s workshop — generates a third of China’s trade yet it is sinking and shrinking. Coupled with the costs of climate related damages, this fact alone should make investors sit up and pay attention — and start financing resilience.

Mai Po wetlands in the Pearl River delta with Shenzen City in background © Martin Harvey / WWF

Indeed, restoring resilience to Asia’s deltas is among the most effective climate adaptation strategies for the region. It will be difficult and extremely ambitious but perhaps there are two pieces of inspiration that we can take away from Hagibis and the World Cup.

I have no doubt that the Japanese people will pick up the pieces after Hagibis: this is not the first disaster they have faced. They are resilient people like the millions who live on Asia’s great deltas. But personal resilience is not enough on its own. Asia’s delta communities need resilient landscapes beneath their feet. And we all have a responsibility towards them since they are on the frontline of the global fight against climate change — and because resilient deltas are critical to regional food security and global economies. Not to mention any hopes of reversing the loss of nature.

Finally, back to rugby, we should not shy away the crisis facing Asia’s deltas because of the magnitude of the challenge. At the start of the world cup Japan had odds of 20,000/1 to win the tournament. They have since gone on to beat the 2nd ranked team in the world (Ireland) and sent the Scottish back to Edinburgh. And even though I’m South African I would not bet against them on Sunday! They are now just 33/1 to win the tournament and who knows they might just do it. There will, after all, be a 100 million Japanese (and many neutrals around the world) willing them on.

Meanwhile, across Asia there are 400 million people willing their leaders to fully commit to building more resilient deltas so that they can continue to live in their communities and cities.

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Find out more about the Resilient Asian Deltas initiative here and don’t forget to watch Japan vs South Africa on Sunday the 20th October at 12:15 CEST!



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Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.