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Asia's Poorest Nations May Face Worst of Climate Change

Developing countries are likely to be among those suffering the most from the extreme weather conditions linked to global warming. At the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Indonesia, experts will discuss ways to reduce climate change, and to help nations prepare for it. VOA's Kate Woodsome reports from Hong Kong on how Asia's poorest nations are likely to be affected, and what steps they might take.

Rising global temperatures will affect different nations in different ways. Tiny Pacific island nations and low-lying Asian nations face rising sea levels encroaching on their land.

Melting Himalayan glaciers will affect the flow of Asia's great rivers, including the Mekong, Irrawaddy, the Red River and the Salween. The changes could cause both disastrous floods and water shortages for tens of millions of people from Tibet to Vietnam.

And for many countries, climate change could mean smaller harvests.

Shailendra Yashwant of Greenpeace in Bangkok says Asia's poorest nations could become even poorer.

"Poverty exists in the developing countries," she noted. "The governments have not been able to address the issue of poverty yet. Comes along climate change and the changing weather patterns impact farmers, which creates a famine-like situation, and that leads to more poverty."

Some Asian governments have already warned of the challenges they face.

Cambodia says increasing rising oceans will push saltwater farther onto land, and increased salinity will hurt rice crops and limit access to fresh water. Floods and droughts could further damage food sources.

Bangladesh, most of which is composed of low-lying river delta, will be even more vulnerable than it is now to disastrous floods.

And Bhutan says changing weather patterns could have an effect on river flows, harming farmers and the country's hydroelectric industry.

The Pacific Regional Environmental Program, a group established by the governments and administrations in the Pacific, is trying to help nations get ready for changes.

It is improving sea walls and drainage systems in the Cook Islands, fortifying roads against flooding in the Federated States of Micronesia, and planting salt-resistant crops in the Solomon Islands.

Greenpeace's Yashwant says governments also need to make institutional changes to prepare for the hazards of global warming.

"Right now, what is clear is that you're not going to be able to physically stop sea levels from rising by building dams or by building sea walls," she said. "What you need is a larger framework strategy to relocate and rehabilitate all those who are along and who are the most- and the worst-impacted by sea-level rise to another place safer, more secure."

Marcus Schuetz is an executive in residence at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School. He says countries need to treat climate change like any other national threat and involve all institutions in the response - from hospitals to banks to factories.

"Most of these problems we have are actually - they are sociological problems or social problems," he said. "They are not purely scientific problems where you have one technology which is going to help you out."

Most climate experts think that greenhouse gases, produced in large part by the burning of fossil fuels for energy, are causing much of the global warming seen in the past several decades.

The U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol requires developed nations that signed it to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but developing countries do not have to reduce their emissions. Environmental analysts, however, say developing countries will probably be expected to join the fight against climate change when the protocol expires in 2012.

The poorer Asian nations lack the money and skills to do so. They are highly dependent on international aid. But experts say aid agencies could have a big impact, by designating funds specifically for green projects.

For example, the Spanish government supports a solar power project in the Philippines. The Asian Development Bank has helped Indonesia explore ways to use waste from its palm oil industry to make clean, renewable and affordable fuel.

Hong Kong Science and Technology's Marcus Schuetz says Asia's poorest nations could profit from the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism. This allows industrialized nations to meet their emissions targets by funding projects that reduce greenhouse gases in countries that do not have to meet the targets.

"It can be some investment into some forestry or other means which are positively offsetting the environmental pollution you omit," he said. "Another thing is you can just plain go into places where renewable energies are not so common at the moment and start, for example, projects building up wind farms for harvesting electrical power from wind plants."

Schuetz says developing nations could also direct foreign investment toward clean technologies.