Impacts of Climate Change in Southeast Asia and Adaptation Measures in the Region

Author: Shenyi Chua, December 2020

“Several studies have assessed that SEA will face extreme climate change in the future, affecting both national and human security. As states across SEA are unique in terms of geographical location, political, economic, and cultural traits, each Asian state will experience the impact of climate change differently, depending on the nature of the threat faced and the resilience abilities of each state.”

Image by Unsplash

Introduction 

Out of the seven continents, Asia is the largest and most inhabited continent. According to the 2019 World Population Prospects presented by the United Nations (UN), Asia is home to 61% of the global population which translates to roughly 4.7 billion people (United Nations). Asia is also well-known for having the world’s largest country, Russia, and the world’s most populous country, China (Diane Boudreau et al.). Moreover, Asia is also the world’s fastest-growing economic region. The economic forecasts show that Asia will continue to remain in this position through 2030 (Fensom; “Prolonged”).  

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has published several economic assessments categorized by region. The assessments anticipate the average real gross domestic product (GDP) in Asia and the Pacific region to grow at 5.1% in 2020, whereas the Middle East and Central Asia region will be growing at 3.4% in 2020 (“Prolonged”; “Regional Economic Outlook: Middle East and Central Asia”). In contrast to the positive projection for Asia, the IMF projects Europe’s average real GDP growth to reach 1.8% (“Regional Economic Outlook: Europe”). Besides, Asia is also known as the world’s manufacturing hub, with China and India taking the lead with competitive low labor costs. Benefiting from globalization, the rapid development in Asia has boosted the living standards of almost a billion people by lifting them out of extreme poverty (Tonby et al. 3; The World Bank; Rapid Growth of Selected Asian Economies). Along with poverty reduction, a large segment of the population has been provided with formal education for the first time. These improvements have led to an increased life expectancy within the region, up from 41 to 74 years since 1950 (Ritchie). However, Asia’s prosperity also comes at a huge cost: the region is accountable for being the largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), notably carbon dioxide (CO2) (Ritchie). Out of the top five global emitters of GHG’s, three are from Asia: China, India, and Japan (Ritchie and Roser). 

The Science Behind What’s Been Reported 

Asia is identified as one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change. As defined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Asia contains 51 countries/regions and can be geographically categorized into six groups: West Asia, Central Asia, North Asia, East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia (AR5 Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability).

Among the six subregions in Asia, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) reports that Southeast Asia (SEA) could be the most affected region in the world (Prakash). Southeast Asia is reported to be a growing source of GHG emissions and the driving force of CO2 in the region. A large percentage of the emissions are driven by deforestation, land degradation, and increased reliance on coal and fossil fuels for energy and transport purposes (Raitzer et al.; Climate Analytics; Asian Development Bank). Many states in SEA are dependent on agriculture and also vulnerable to rising sea levels.  

An enhanced greenhouse effect is one of the main contributing causes towards global warming. The Earth’s temperature is determined by “the amounts of incoming (short-wavelength) and out-going (both short and long-wavelength) radiation” (U.S. Global Change Research Program). While one-third of the solar radiation coming from the sun reflects back into space, the remaining energy is absorbed into the Earth’s system, such as land mass and the oceans, to generate heat (“Greenhouse Effect”; U.S. Global Change Research Program). As a result, the Earth radiates heat through infrared radiation from its surface and into the atmosphere. Some of the infrared energy radiated from the surface is absorbed by the GHGs in the atmosphere, thus warming the Earth’s surface and atmosphere (U.S. Global Change Research Program). However, the Earth’s radiative balance has changed due to anthropogenic activities generating excessive concentrations of GHGs. With excessive heat-trapping GHGs in the atmosphere capturing more radiations, it leads to the warming of Earth’s temperature (“Greenhouse Effect”; U.S. Global Change Research Program). Water vapor is one of the most important GHGs, and because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor, it increases the evaporation rate which leads to extreme precipitation(Climate Central; U.S. Global Change Research Program). Extreme precipitation increases the likelihood of negative impacts such as soil erosion, land degradation, and floods (Lennart Olsson et al.; Mullan et al.). Land degradation greatly reduces soil’s ability to absorb and store CO2 (Lennart Olsson et al.; IPBES). A 2018 report expressed that land degradation caused carbon which was previously stored in the soil to be released, contributing up to 4.4 billion tons of CO2 between the years of 2000 and 2009 (IPBES). 

The two main causes of global sea-level rise are thermal expansion and increases in the melting of ice sheets and glaciers (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Thermal expansion refers to the expansion of seawater due to rising ocean temperatures. Warmer oceans occupy more space because water volume increases when heated, causing more than 90% of the Earth’s heat-trapping gases associated with emissions from human activity to be absorbed by the ocean. This results in ocean thermal expansion which consequently contributes to the rise in sea levels (Stocker et al.). 

Glaciers and ice sheets across the world are found to be melting at a faster rate compared to previous theoretical modeling results due to global temperature increase (Howard). According to data published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the global annual average temperature has been rising since the Industrial Revolution (NASA Global Climate Change). Additionally, the record shows that the world has experienced its nineteen warmest years since 2001, with 2016 listed as the warmest of all time (NASA Global Climate Change). The melting of glaciers and ice sheets adds more water into the ocean, further causing the mean sea level to rise. 

Extent and Nature of The Current Impacts 

The Human Development Report 1994 listed seven possible types of human security threats: 1) economic security, 2) food security, 3) health security, 4) environmental security, 5) political security, 6) community security and 7) personal security (United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1994). Both land degradation and rising sea level meet all seven types of human security threats. 

According to the IPCC’s AR5, annual total wet-day rainfall has gone up by 22mm per decade whereas rainfall from extreme rain days has gone up by 10 mm per decade in SEA (AR5 Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO) reports that the Asia-Pacific region alone produces and consumes more than 90% of the world’s rice (Chew and Soccio). As a region that accounts for 19% of total global food and agriculture exports and 31% of total food and agriculture imports, Asia plays an irreplaceable role in the global food system (A Regional Rice Strategy for Sustainable Food Security in Asia and the Pacific; Muthayya et al.; Papademetriou). The effects of climate change directly threaten the economic and food security of Asian states that rely heavily on agriculture. As crops are highly sensitive to climate, climate-induced events such as an increase in temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and reductions in water resource availability may affect both crop productivity and quality (Ahmed and Stepp). For instance, changes in temperature are proven to have a significant impact on antioxidant activity in fruits and vegetables and increases in temperature result in declining nutritional content in fruit and vegetable crops (Ahmed and Stepp). The population who consumes too much of these crops could possibly suffer from health-related problems such as malnutrition which makes this a pressing issue.

Several countries in the Southeast Asia region have been reported to be a victim of climate-related problems, notably Indonesia and the Philippines which tend to suffer from deficient rainfall or drought regularly (U.S. Foreign Agriculture Service). Indonesia’s agricultural production has suffered serious damages as a result of climate change due to more frequent changes in precipitation and cycles of droughts and floods triggered by weather and climate-phenomenon, which have affected the income of the rural population, increased food prices, and threatened the nation’s food security (Oktaviani et al.). UNFAO’s research in 2018 predicted that over the next two to five decades, some agriculture provinces including main rice-producing districts, could experience extreme decrease in agricultural yields. It is estimated that the yield could drop to as low as 1.5 tons per hectare (tons/ha) for rice/maize and 0.5 tons/ha for soybeans in certain areas of Java and East Nusa Tenggara (“Indonesian Farmers”). The average yield in Java and East Nusa Tenggara for lowland rice was recorded at 5.25 tons/ha and 4.61 tons/ha respectively in 2002 (“Chapter 5: The Crops”). Soybean, on the other hand, was recorded at 1.21 tons/ha in Java and 1.15 tons/ha in East Nusa Tenggara (“Chapter 5: The Crops”). This could severely destabilize the income of farmers which UNFAO also projected over one-third of Indonesia’s farming families might suffer from the impacts of global warming (“Indonesian Farmers”; Woetzel et al.). Thailand has also witnessed a decrease in rice production in the 2019-20 season due to flooding and drought. This has led to the Thai government ordering farmers to delay rice plantings to preserve water for household supplies instead of irrigation purposes (Wilson; Arunmas). Charoen Laothamatas, President of Thai Rice Exporters Association reported a decrease in Thailand’s rice quality as a result of climate change, global warming, and changes in planting methods.  

The rise of global mean sea levels is another threatening climate crisis to the world, directly impacting human security from all aspects. As the most vulnerable region to the effects of climate change, countries in SEA are now experiencing the impacts brought by rising sea levels. 

Events of inundation occur frequently in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Vietnam directly due to its geographical disadvantage, over 50% of the HCMC’s land is 1.5m below sea level combined with seasonal high tide and heavy rainfall (Duy et al.). Moreover, recorded data shows that the city had experienced 980 inundations from the year 2010 to 2015 and “extremely heavy” rainfall occurred thrice every year from 2002 to 2017 (Duy et al.). Other research also reveals that one-third of Vietnam’s population is at risk of flooding and more than half of HCMC’s urban area is affected by regular floods (Bangalore et al.; Duy et al.). Climate-related extreme events that occurred in Vietnam between 1999 to 2018 had taken away 285 lives and resulted in economic losses of over $2 billion USD each year (Minh Nga). 

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago state, is made up of a total of 17,508 islands with approximately 6,000 inhabited (“Facts & Figures”). The country is also vulnerable to rising sea levels. Due to ineffective governance and excessive extraction of groundwater, Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, with a population close to 10 million people, is sinking at a rate of up to 6.7% per year and has already sunk 13 feet over the course of 30 years (Paddock and Suhartono; Tarrant; Lin and Hidayat). Indonesia lost at least 28 of its islands due to natural disasters, exploitation and environmental damage between 2004 to 2007 (Cribb and Ford; “Minister Says”). The Indonesia Forum for the Environment recently confirmed that two islands located in South Sumatra submerged “as a result of rising sea levels driven by climate change” (Savitri). Salah Namo Island, one of the small islands close to the eastern coast of South Sumatra’s Banyuasin is also reported to be submerging (Savitri). The population living on the island was forced to move their houses up to tens of meters away from their original location due to the rise in sea levels (Savitri). It has been reported that approximately 42 million families residing in the coastal regions of Indonesia are facing the consequences of rising sea levels which are directly threatening their economic, health, food, community, and personal security (Vaessen).

Projections for The Future 

Several studies have assessed that SEA will face extreme climate change in the future, affecting both national and human security. As states across SEA are unique in terms of geographical location, political, economic, and cultural traits, each Asian state will experience the impact of climate change differently, depending on the nature of the threat faced and the resilience abilities of each state. 

In 2007, the IPCC reported that Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam are expected to experience a 6.7% loss of their GDP, which exceeds twice the rate of global average losses by 2100 if global temperatures are to change as predicted (Sovacool). However, the ADB re-evaluated the economic impact of climate change in 2015 and estimated that the SEA region could potentially suffer an 11% regional GDP loss as key sectors including tourism, agriculture, and fishing, as well as human health and labor productivity are negatively affected (Prakash; Raitzer et al.). The World Health Organization estimates that global warming could result in 800 additional child fatalities due to diarrheal disease and up to 500 additional malaria-related deaths per year in the region (Key Facts and Figures for Subregions/Countries).   

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted scenario exercises that projected the global sea level to increase between 0.3m (lowest possible GHG emissions) to 2.5m (extreme high GHG emissions) by 2100 (Sweet et al.). Research shows a 2-meter rise in sea level could place 187 million people at risk of displacement (Georgiou). Climate refugees will emerge as global warming continues, starting with in-state migration where people flee from submerging islands. Between 2008 and 2018, as much as 54.5 million people in Southeast Asia were displaced due to climate hazards (Dennis). Indonesia is expected to lose another 2,000 small islands by 2050 and the ADB estimated approximately 5.9 million Indonesians will be affected by 2100 if no effective adaptation measures are put in place (Karunungan; Key Facts and Figures for Subregions/Countries). Thailand is also vulnerable to rising sea levels with more than 10% of its population currently living on land that could be below the new high-tide mark by 2050 (Lu and Flavelle). 

Sea-level rise also heightens the possibilities of coastal flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion into both surface and groundwater, threatening freshwater resources for human consumption as well as decline in farmland productivity (“Asia”). UNFAO found that some provinces in Indonesia are at high risk of water insecurity in the coming 20 to 30 years (“Indonesian Farmers”). The IPCC estimates a 1-meter rise in sea level could result in Vietnam losing 7% of its agricultural land (“Asia”). Similarly, Myanmar could also witness rice yield decline due to saltwater intrusion, exacerbated by sea-level rise (“Asia”).  In Malaysia, a 1-meter rise in sea level is estimated to damage 180,000 hectares of agricultural land and up to 20% loss of mangrove forests along the coastline (Ehsan et al.).  

Extreme weather events are projected to negatively impact agricultural crop production. For instance, extreme temperatures could result in lower yields of rice whereas increased precipitation may lead to flooding that results in a decline in crop production (“Asia”). High McKinsey Global Institute projected the average temperatures to rise by two to four degrees Celsius by 2050, causing countries in SEA to expect extreme increases in heat and humidity (Choudhury; Woetzel et al.). Also, Indonesia could experience a three or four-fold increase in the probability of extreme precipitation by 2050 (Woetzel et al.). The ADB predicted rice yields in rice-cultivation countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam could decline up to 50% by 2100 as compared to 1990 levels without technological advances in agriculture production (Prakash; Key Facts and Figures for Subregions/Countries). This could severely affect the individuals and farming families in the region who heavily rely on agriculture to make a living. For instance, 3 million people are employed in the agriculture sector of Cambodia contributing about 22% of the country’s GDP while 43% of Vietnam’s population engaged in farming activities (Schenck; U.S. Mission Cambodia).  

Current Adaptation Measures  

As SEA is extremely vulnerable to climate change, the region must have adaptation measures in place to reduce vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Options to mitigate the risk of climate-induced events include sustainable agricultural practices which are essential to prevent land degradation. These practices could lead to guaranteeing food, environmental, and economic security in SEA. Numerous studies demonstrate that an agricultural diversification strategy has proven effective in increasing the substantiality of agriculture activities as well as notably building resilience. By planting various types of crops within an agro-ecosystem, each unique species performs different functions and possesses different physiological thresholds to react to climate variability. This enhances the quality of the crops by increasing their nutritional value while also improving their resilience against sub-optimal conditions (Chatterjee and Andel).

One of the benefits of crop diversity is the marked increase in organic matter from added residue and roots, thus creating an ideal environment for quality crops to grow (United States Department of Agriculture). Next, roots help to prevent soil erosion by holding the soil in position and more roots allow better water infiltration as well as increased air and water movement around the soil. Agricultural diversification strategies do not only come in various forms i.e. genetic variety and species, but also through different scales such as within crops or within fields (Lin). The within-crop scale diversification strategy refers to changes in crop structural diversity, such as planting crops that come in different plant heights. The field scale refers to dividing the field into different plots and the areas surrounding each plot can be used to attract natural enemy habitat by growing trap crops (Lin). Trap crops are sacrificial plants grown to attract agricultural pests away from the main crops (Westerfield and Braman). To address uncertainty in rainfall patterns, farmers in the Kandal province of Cambodia divided their rice plots into two using different management techniques: one of the rice plots uses conventional wet-paddy techniques that can survive heavy rains whereas the other plot uses a “drought-resistant, less water-intensive cultivation technique” to ensure crop productivity (Stenberg and Meadu). Capacity-building of the agricultural workforce plays an important role in adaptation measures as well. Farmers should be informed about the latest climate resilience cropping techniques and provided access to meteorological information to better prepare for planting schedules through accurate weather forecasts (United Nations Development Programme, “South-Eastern Asia”).

As each state experiences the impact of rising sea levels differently, each of them has their own adaptation measures to address this issue. According to the Department of Meteorology, Hydrology and Climate Change of Vietnam, current adaptation measures to counter sea-level rise along its coastal zones includes measures to strengthen and elevate embankments nationwide, invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure, support technological advancement in agriculture, and elevate houses built below flood level to the safe zone (Nhat). The World Bank has suggested investing in mangrove replanting which could provide the local population protection against sea-level rise and storm surges (“World Bank Group Announce”). In 2018, Bangkok planted 20 acres of mangroves along its southern coastline as an effort to protect its coastline from further erosion and announced a new plan to restore another 160 acres of coastline through mangrove restoration (“Bangkok Planting”). Singapore recently announced an S$100 billion (~72 billion USD) plan targeted at building nation resilience against climate change (Chang). Out of the $100 billion, Singapore is planning to spend S$400 million (~298 million USD) to upgrade drainage systems nationwide to enhance flood resilience (Chin and Heijmans). The Lion City also changed its requirement to have new infrastructures to be built at least 4 meters above sea level as an effort to combat sea-level rise (Chang). In response to rising sea levels, Singapore is contemplating the use of dikes and polders to protect low-lying areas as well as the reclamation of islands offshore (Chin and Heijmans; Mohan). 

Conclusion

Although multiple research demonstrates that SEA could face a devastating future due to climate change, there is still time for SEA governments to invest in climate-resilient infrastructures and to promote climate-resilient development in different sectors. This paper examined current impacts, future projections, and adaptation measures in two key areas: 1) effects of climate change in the agricultural sector and 2) threats of sea level rise to SEA. State and international organizations are urged to invest more in the agriculture sector, notably sustainable technology and infrastructure to safeguard food safety and food security. The agriculture industry should utilize available technology to maximize resource output that leads to improvement in farming productivity while ensuring climate resilience and environmental protection. Farmers should also be equipped with agricultural knowledge such as crop diversification to better adapt to the changing weather to ensure crop production. The governments’ mitigation responses to climate change such as investing in climate-adaptive infrastructures and planting mangrove forests along the coastline are commendable, but more must be done to protect the human security of inhabitants living in the region most vulnerable to climate change. Other than building capacity to counter land degradation and sea-level rise, governments should also strengthen climate education and awareness to keep the general public engaged on relevant issues and information to encourage collective action on climate change. 

It is crucial to reduce the impacts of climate change in SEA as the region plays a significant role in achieving global food security. Additionally, mitigation and adaptation solutions should also be strategically planned to maintain regional stability by reducing if not preventing the emergence of climate refugees. Science had showed us that our future is at stake if we remain hesitant to act. We should question ourselves if this is what we want for our future generation – a world endangered by rising sea levels and global food insecurity with violent conflicts across nations fighting for resources in the backdrop? The choice is in our hands, and that I wish we collectively work towards building a safer and greener Earth. 

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