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Korea urged to take preemptive steps to deal with climate change-induced disasters

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This photo shows landslides triggered by the heavy rain near a high school in Dongjak District, Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap
This photo shows landslides triggered by the heavy rain near a high school in Dongjak District, Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap

Yoon orders new measures to cope with extreme weather

By Lee Hyo-jin

After Seoul and its surrounding areas were battered by record-breaking downpours over the last two days, experts are calling for preemptive mitigation and prevention efforts, warning that the country may witness more extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Nine people were killed in the torrential rainfall as of Wednesday ― five in Seoul, three in surrounding Gyeonggi Province and one in Gangwon Province, while seven people went missing, according to the Central Disaster Safety and Countermeasures Headquarters. The authorities said 2,600 homes and residential buildings were destroyed, leaving at least 600 people displaced.

The accumulated rainfall across Seoul stood at 525 millimeters as of 11 a.m., while some parts of Gyeonggi Province were drenched with 532.5 millimeters of rain.

Presiding over a flood response meeting, President Yoon Suk-yeol offered an apology to the public for the inconveniences caused by the heavy rainfall, while ordering relevant ministries to take immediate measures for a swift recovery.

"We can no longer call such extreme weather abnormal. We may see record-breaking levels again at any time," he said, stressing that the country must map out new measures to cope with worse-than-expected scenarios.

Unusual rainfall

Pedestrians walk on a battered sidewalk in Dongjak District, Seoul, on Tuesday following Monday's heavy rain. Yonhap
Pedestrians walk on a battered sidewalk in Dongjak District, Seoul, on Tuesday following Monday's heavy rain. Yonhap

"Dongjak District saw the highest amount of rainfall since the country began tracking precipitation levels in 1907," an official at the Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) told The Korea Times. "But we have not included the figure in the official record since the data came from Dongjak District and not from the official weather observation center in Jongno District."

The state weather agency viewed that the latest rainfall was somewhat unusual, considering that Korea's annual rainy season occurs from late June through the end of July.

"The heavy downpour was brought by a rain band caused by a collision between dry, cold air from the north and a warm, humid air band from the south forming in the central region of Korea," the official explained.

But he was cautious to link the extreme precipitation to climate change caused by global warming, saying that more data should be gathered to find a direct correlation between the two.

"However, they are not completely irrelevant. The amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is increasing due to global warming, leading to a rise in ocean surface temperatures. And this could have some effect on the formation of precipitation in the summer monsoon season as well as on the formation of stationary fronts," he said.

Seoul city urged to improve drainage system

People wade through waist-deep water near Daechi Station in Gangnam District amid torrential rainfall, Monday. Yonhap
People wade through waist-deep water near Daechi Station in Gangnam District amid torrential rainfall, Monday. Yonhap

The unprecedented flooding was way over the volume the drainage system in Seoul could handle, according to disaster management experts, who urged that the city government should scale up its infrastructure to cope with similar disasters in the future.

"Disasters often occur without any warning signs, the very reason why we must be fully prepared in advance," said Kong Ha-sung, a professor of fire and disaster prevention at Woosuk University. "In order to save more lives and mitigate the impact of disasters, investing in prevention is much more important than relief efforts."

Kong added that authorities should improve the drainage system especially in Seoul's Gangnam district, which is geographically vulnerable to floods.

"The neighborhood near Gangnam subway station is about 10 meters lower in altitude than surrounding areas, causing the area to flood very quickly. And the drainage system in the district can handle only up to 90 to 95 millimeters of rain per hour," he said.

Cho Won-cheol, an emeritus professor of civil engineering at Yonsei University, believed that the capital region is not equipped with sustainable drainage infrastructure despite rapid urbanization.

"Many roads in Seoul do not have proper drainage systems to efficiently collect and remove water runoff in the event of heavy rain or floods. It is regretful that the importance of ensuring sufficient investment in such infrastructure is often overlooked by the authorities," Cho said.

"The establishment of proper drainage systems is a long-term project which would take from five to 10 years, requiring consistent governance. But the city authorities often choose to scrap or abandon the policies of their predecessors, a major reason why the capital has yet to see any meaningful results," he added.


Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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