Extreme weather highlights Southeast Asia’s vulnerability to climate change

Photo: Basile Morin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The region faces the threat of increasing natural disasters as global warming makes extreme weather more likely.

By Zachary Frye                                             

Over the past several weeks, parts of Southeast Asia have been pummeled by severe storms. Widespread flooding across the region, especially in Vietnam, left hundreds of thousands of residents temporarily displaced.

In Vietnam alone, at least 90,000 people were forced from their homes during the first several weeks of October after two heavy tropical storms, Linfa and Nangka, hit the country just days apart.

In the Philippines, tropical storm Saudel made landfall on October 20 and subsequently formed into a typhoon, leading to further flooding in Vietnam. Parts of Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia were also affected.

The latest typhoon, Goni, slammed into the Philippines on Sunday. Reports indicate that it was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded. Hundreds of thousands were displaced and at least 10 people were killed, but the capital Manila was mostly spared.

While the typhoon season in the region typically lasts from May to October, this year’s storms were unusually frequent.

Throughout October, rainfall measurements in parts of Vietnam clocked in some six times higher than average.

Some families and comminutes impacted by severe flooding are left devastated

Landslides and flooding brought on by the torrential rains in Vietnam killed at least 100 people with dozens of others reported missing. In addition to the loss of life, the hardest-hit locations in Vietnam are also being impacted economically.

Hundreds of thousands of livestock animals were swept away in the floods and some 7,000 hectares of farmland were affected. In light of the devastation, Christopher Rassi, a senior official at The International Federation of the Red Cross noted that for many of Vietnam’s working poor the floods “are the last straw and will push millions…further towards the brink of poverty.”

In Cambodia, meanwhile, heavy rains from the storms’ movement inland have also impacted residents. For Phnom Penh’s urban poor, prolonged flooding increases the prospect of disease transmission, especially due to poor sanitation standards.

The urban poor in Phnom Penh often live in informal settlements or poorly constructed dwellings. For those already facing an uncertain economic existence, recurrent floods only serve to further destabilize lives and livelihoods.

With limited or nonexistent savings, many poor families struggle to meet their financial demands during natural disasters, leading some to take on high debt burdens, increasing the chance that the cycle of poverty continues.

Photo: Pikrepo

The Mekong region is prone to flooding and climate change will only make it worse

With much of mainland Southeast Asia situated in low-lying areas, flooding is not an uncommon occurrence for residents throughout the region. More frequent and powerful storms, however, significantly raise the risk that communities will suffer. In the future, some areas could even become inundated by rising waters, especially due to rising sea levels wrought by global warming.

While it’s impossible to say that a single storm was caused by climate change, scientists have shown that rising temperatures increase the likelihood of severe weather, including severe typhoons and monsoon rains.

According to research published in the journal Nature Communications in 2019, costal Southeast Asia is one of the most vulnerable locations on the planet for rising sea levels. The study’s modeling suggests that by 2050, significant portions of greater Bangkok could be underwater at high tide.

The model also shows that nearly all of the Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam could be underwater at high tide by midcentury, including much of Ho Chi Minh City, home to over 8 million residents.

As per a separate study co-authored by the Asian Development Bank in 2017, climate change could reduce rice yields by 50% in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam by 2100 and have lasting impacts on the region’s labor productivity across a range of economic sectors.

In total, some 11% could be shaved off the region’s GDP by the end of the century if climate-induced economic losses aren’t adequately mitigated.

Southeast Asian governments need to do more to combat climate change as part of a sustained global effort

ASEAN leaders have shown a willingness to support efforts to reduce the negative impacts of global warming—all ASEAN member states signed the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015. But many countries in the region continue to prioritize economic agendas that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Research published in the journal Energies in 2019 suggests that, absent a more robust decarbonization plan, overall greenhouse gas emissions in the region could nearly double by 2040, potentially leading to significant negative impacts on ASEAN’s socioeconomic development.

As much of the region looks to recover from a bought of severe storms this month, governments across Southeast Asia should keep in mind the potential long-term impacts of climate change on their citizens and economies.

Severe storms and natural disasters will always be an aspect of life but deadly flooding, widespread displacement and lasting economic losses are not a foregone conclusion.

ASEAN member states should view this year’s typhoon season as a preview of what’s to come unless they get serious on climate change.

Although the onus to protect the region’s people and systems from climate impacts can’t be confined to Southeast Asia, leadership on the issue is nevertheless critical in order to work towards the safety and wellbeing of the region’s residents in the coming decades.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.