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After hottest summer in 174 years, how prepared is Asia for more extreme heatwaves?

SICHUAN and SEOUL: Last year, when China experienced its worst heatwave since national records began in 1961, the impact on Wang Guoning’s maize farm in Sichuan province was devastating.

“The maize was so dry it resembled tinder, like it could ignite. So many plants died,” recalled the 33-year-old. “Basically, everything was ruined, and we had no income.”

This summer, the heat returned with a vengeance and even hit 52.2 degrees Celsius in China’s north-west Xinjiang province. Several provinces including Sichuan experienced drought and forest fires.

Having learnt from experience, however, Wang started planting more than 20 days earlier this time, producing a crop prior to the adverse conditions. “We managed to (get) the … timing (right),” she said. “So we’ve cut our losses due to drought.”

Nonetheless, China saw a drop in its summer grain harvest. Thermal stress causes maize, for instance, to crop early, which means smaller corn kernels than usual and thus reduced yields.

The impact of heatwaves on the farm animals themselves can be debilitating.

“The chickens might eat less and thus take longer to mature,” cited Sichuan chicken farmer Cheng Xiangan. It does not help that Jiuyuan black chickens, the breed he raises, are “a tad ill-tempered”.

With the soaring temperatures this summer, at least 27 people in South Korea had died by early August, and many of them were elderly farmers.

“Even if it strains the body, they have no choice but to do (the work),” said Cho Chae-woon, the village chief of Deokpyeong-ri. “There’s a shortage of labour in farming.”

But with temperatures in his village exceeding 38 deg C during the recent heatwave, he would fire up his public address system four times a day to warn residents of heat-related illnesses.

“If there’s anyone still working right now, please stop and come to the cool shelter,” he would intone. “Get rest, and try to keep your work (to) the morning and evening hours.”

TOUGHING IT OUT IN THE CITIES

Away from the farms, it has also been a gruelling summer for some workers in urban centres.

Hong Sung-wan, for example, is perched on a cherry picker for several hours a day, installing network cables for South Korean broadcasting company LG HelloVision, “doing something that someone must do under the hot weather”.

“When I have to stay (by) the utility pole for an hour and a half or two, sometimes I get dizzy,” he said. “Whenever that happens, I think about my family, my colleagues around me, and overcome it.”

It could be an episode of heat exhaustion, which occurs when the body overheats. At worst, it could lead to heatstroke, a potentially fatal condition.

Hong feels he must tough it out. “The workers feel that they can’t help but do their jobs,” said the 51-year-old, who has been on the job for 20 years.

“If they have to take a break from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. owing to a heatwave that exceeds 35 deg C, those three hours will be considered working hours,” he said. “They’ll still be paid the day’s wage.”

The city does not, however, enforce such a policy for workplaces owned by private companies. “They probably avoid the peak time of 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and pay the wages according to the hours worked,” Hwang surmised.

Over in Hong Kong, which just had its hottest summer on record, the Labour Department released anti-heatstroke guidelines this year based on a three-tier warning system.

When an amber warning is in effect, workers with a moderate physical workload, for instance, are advised to take a 15-minute break every hour. There are also red and black warnings, signifying “very high” and “extremely high” heat stress respectively.

In the neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po, retiree Wong Kwai Hoi resides in a flat measuring about 65 square feet, roughly half the size of a standard parking space in Hong Kong. It does not even have a window.

“It not only affects my mood, but also makes life miserable. It’s so unbearable,” said the 65-year-old. “Sometimes I feel so overheated that I become dizzy and have to take medication.”

Dense housing is found across Hong Kong, a concrete jungle that exacerbates the heat build-up through something called the urban heat island effect. In extreme cases, cities can be 10 to 15 deg C hotter than their rural surroundings.

Wang has an air conditioner, but to save money, he does not use it. He pays more than HK$3,000 (S$520) in rent and utilities and receives a government subsidy of a little over HK$2,000, which he regards as insufficient.

For those in Seoul who are a high-risk group, volunteers from the Seoul Bridge Centre would invite them to stay at the centre’s emergency shelter — which provides water, food and, importantly, air conditioning — from 7 p.m. to the next morning.

But with this year’s heatwave posing “a very serious problem”, the centre has had to extend its services, said its chief, Oh Seung-chul.

“We’ve been keeping the centre open 24/7 so people can come here to rest and cool down from the heat anytime.”

As the earth heats up, what is needed is education “so people can be informed when they should be outside and when they shouldn’t be”, said Earth Observatory of Singapore director Benjamin Horton.

“If they’re outside in the hottest parts of the day, they need to be hydrated. There needs to be cooling centres so they can escape the heat and keep themselves safe.”

Most of these residents subsist on a “basic living” subsidy from the government. “The residents are hoping for air conditioning … so that they can have both warm and cool air in the winter and summer,” said one resident, Cha Jeseol.

But the cost in energy is adding to the heat problem. Power demand in South Korea surged in August to a record high. As with many parts of Asia, the country’s electricity is still mainly generated by fossil fuels.

“Therefore, we need to think about different means of reducing our heat in the cities,” said Horton.

In the search for other solutions, architects and engineers want to construct buildings that cool themselves, such as Gaia — Asia’s largest timber building — at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. As a construction material, wood does not trap heat like concrete does.

As streets and shops in the capital flooded, authorities decided to take drastic measures. Officials in bordering Hebei diverted the flood waters to the province, reported The New York Times.

The move further inundated Zhuozhou, a city in Hebei that was struggling to contain its own floods after a levee had broken and a local river had overflowed.

With downstream cities flooded to save Beijing and around 1.54 million people in the province evacuated, there has been an undercurrent of division.

The government has since “pre-allocated” 1 billion yuan (S$187 million) for flood relief efforts. Heat and tropical storms are closely linked, however, and these funds may quickly run out should heatwaves and floods become a more regular occurrence.

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