The biggest Hollywood blockbuster can't compare to rainy season in Asia. The air around you suddenly thickens. The sky blackens and crackles with lightning. Then comes the rain, humbling in its ferocity, crashing earthward as a near-solid wall of water. I live in Bangkok, where the monsoon is now reaching a crescendo, and every day I watch the greatest show on earth through my office window.
But it's getting harder to enjoy the show. The rains dramatically illustrate how vulnerable Asia's densely populated coastal cities are to climate change. Breakneck growth and dilapidated infrastructure have already made flooding a fact of life in many cities. Now urban Asia must brace for sea-level rises, tidal surges, extreme weather and other climatic horrors. From ports in China and India to delta populations in Vietnam and Burma, this fast-developing region has most of our planet's urban dwellers and its most vulnerable cities. Asia is not alone, however. From Mombasa to Miami, climate change imperils 3,351 cities lying in low-elevation coastal zones, says UN-HABITAT, the U.N. agency for human settlements. Places that once thrived because of their proximity to rivers and oceans now seem cursed by it.
Three Asian capitals Bangkok, Jakarta and Dhaka are currently fighting what feels like a rearguard action to keep the water at bay. Their efforts will be watched in other cities waking up to a climate nightmare after years of unplanned growth. The threat of sea-level rise and flooding makes Bangkok a "climate hazard hotspot," says a May report by the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA) in Singapore. I prefer an older description: "the Venice of the East." Most early Bangkok residents moved by boat between floating houses; it was not until 1863 that the city's first paved road was built. Today, despite flood-control measures that include a 48-mile (77 km) levee along the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok feels like it's returning to its watery origins.
Yet Bangkok feels high and dry compared to Jakarta. This year, in January, when the rainfall is heaviest, the U.S. embassy in Jakarta advised its citizens to stock up on food and water, keep cell phones charged and gas tanks at least three-quarters full, and exercise caution when driving through "small rivers." It's the sort of travel advisory you'd expect for negotiating an untamed wilderness, not a city of more than 12 million souls. Damage from a deadly 2007 flood cost Jakarta half a billion dollars ironically, roughly the same cost as an unfinished project designed to prevent it. Nearly 15 miles (24 km) long, the East Flood Canal will one day drain the overflow from Jakarta's rivers into the sea. But when? The project was initiated in the 1970s. City officials say the canal will start operating by year's end, but Jakartans aren't holding their breath.
Nor are the people of Dhaka, where another big flood-control project is planned. UN-HABITAT calls the Bangladeshi capital "the world's fastest-growing megacity." Located at the heart of one of the world's largest river systems, it is also one of the most flood-prone. One solution is the Dhaka Integrated Flood Control Embankment. Its two main aims are laudable: protect eastern Dhaka from the overflowing Balu river and, with a road running along its top, ease the city's mind-bending traffic jams. But the $350 million project is so ill-conceived it will actually worsen flooding, claims landscape architect Iqbal Habib, one of many eminent Bangladeshi experts opposing it. Much of Dhaka is already ringed by similar embankments. These keep out the rivers (most of the time) but also keep in the rainwater. The city, says Habib, fills like a cup.
So what's the alternative? Go with the flow, suggests Habib. Don't erect futile barricades against the water; instead, control its path through the city. "You can't fight nature," he told me. "It fights back." Until the 1960s Dhaka had many lakes and waterways that stored and drained floodwater, but as in Bangkok and Jakarta these were filled in and built over as the population exploded. Protect the surviving waterways and re-excavate historic ones, says Habib, and Dhaka will flood less.
Canals can mitigate seasonal floods, but beyond mass relocation, nothing will proof coastal cities against rising oceans. Even a slight rise in sea level will engulf large parts of Dhaka, warns UN-HABITAT, while Bangkok and Jakarta are both so vulnerable that it is "beyond the current capacity" of residents to adapt, warns Herminia Francisco, who co-authored the EEPSEA report. This helps explains why, as I write this, the streets in my neighborhood are filling up with water. When the rain stops, one or two residents will shuffle through dirty, ankle-deep water to light incense at the local spirit shrine. And why not? Prayer is starting to look like a sensible option.