Heatwave highlights climate vulnerabilities in Southeast Asia

A woman farmer in the North Philippines showing the impact of El Nino and the lack of adequate irrigation. Photo courtesy of the Amihan Women Facebook group. Used with permission.

Climate experts have long warned that Southeast Asia will be especially vulnerable to environmental disasters and extreme weather amid the ongoing climate crisis, and 2024 is demonstrating just how deadly this extreme weather can be. South and Southeast Asia have been roasting in a record-setting heatwave for the last month that has left a slew of bodies throughout the region, forced some governments to close schools and issue work-from-home orders, and led to an uptick in health issues. 

While this year’s heat was exacerbated by the El Niño weather phenomenon, in a study in Nature Scientific Journal, researchers note that the excess heat and rainfall in Southeast Asia in recent years is “far outside” historical climate norms. One weather historian even called April’s heatwave “the most extreme event in world climatic history.” The following map shows just how hot Asia got during the weeks-long heatwave. 

While the map above indicates most countries in the region faced real temperatures between 40–45 degrees Celcius (104–113 degrees Fahrenheit), in cities where densely populated buildings and skyscrapers trap heat, the heat index — what the temperature feels like when humidity is taken into account — reached even higher. Bangkok saw a heat index of 52 degrees C (125.6 degrees F), prompting warnings from the government to stay indoors during peak sun hours.

Myanmar took the brunt of the punishing heat with temperatures above 45 degrees C in most of the country, capping off in the town of Chauk with a record-breaking 48.2 degrees C (119 F). According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), a staggering 1,500 people have reportedly died from heatstroke in Myanmar, a number they compiled through hospital and funeral data. The actual tally could be higher as political instability and internal conflict in Myanmar make these numbers hard to track.

For those who are forced to venture out when the sun is at its peak, the danger can come in minutes. One Burmese resident who declined to be identified for security reasons, said his son, Mann Moon Maung, 36, succumbed to heatstroke less than 15 minutes after showing symptoms.

The death of my son happened very fast. I immediately called a car and took him to hospital. The doctor said my son has already died. He had no heartbeat and no blood pressure.

Nearly 2 million people were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar following the February 2021 coup, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and especially vulnerable to environmental pressures. While detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government drew up a climate action plan in 2018, since she was ousted, the country has been in a state of civil war, leaving little hope for state aid in mitigating the worsening climate disasters. 

Deep cracks have emerged in agricultural fields in the Philipines due to persistent drought. Photo courtesy of the Amihan Women Facebook group. Used with permission.

Elsewhere in the region, the Philippines were forced to close down schools because of the heatwave as temperatures topped 42 degrees C (107.6 degrees F) in some parts of the country, with over half the schools in Metro Manila shortening the school day or closing altogether due to a lack of air conditioning facilities. The El Niño phenomenon has also left the country facing a drought, raising concerns over water shortages and causing major disruption to the agriculture industry. The drought is so extreme that the ruins of a town submerged 50 years ago with the construction of a reservoir have reappeared as the water supply dries up. 

Thailand saw 38 deaths due to heatstroke — primarily outdoor laborers, elderly populations, and those with comorbidities. This also resulted in a record-breaking week for electricity usage, as citizens stayed indoors and turned to air conditioning to keep cool, putting a strain on the country’s power infrastructure. While air conditioners are currently necessary to avoid deadly heat, the UN Environmental Programme and other climate experts warn that as the world faces increasing temperatures, reliance on ACs can create a vicious cycle that raises emissions and perpetuates the climate crisis.

Thailand’s heatwave was broken by a downpour on Monday, May 6, which then caused flooding throughout Bangkok.  

Malaysia saw at least two deaths from the heat wave, including a 19-month-old infant. Over 30 people have reported serious health complications due to the heat in Malaysia. 

Meanwhile, Cambodia was also forced to close schools. It also experienced a freak accident that has been partially attributed to the heat, when, on April 27, an ammunition blast at a Regional military Command Center in Kampong Speu, Cambodia, left 20 soldiers dead, many soldiers and civilians injured, the base damaged, and 25 local residents’ homes destroyed. Officials released a statement on May 2 saying, “The incident of the ammunition explosion on Apr 27, 2024 … was a technical issue because the weapons are old, faulty, and the hot weather.”

The heatwave has also had a negative economic impact throughout the region. Informal workers such as food vendors and goods hawkers were unable to go out during the high heat and saw a much-reduced customer base throughout the heatwave. In Vietnam, millions of fish died in a reservoir after water levels got too low and the temperatures rose, which could have long-term impacts on food security in the nearby towns.

The International Panel on Climate Change notes in a 2023 report that if the climate crisis continues unabated, Southeast Asia will see significant and long-term economic disruption.

More disasters to come

A report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) called Asia the “world’s most disaster-prone region” and warned that climate-related hazards will only get worse.

Asia remained the world’s most disaster-hit region from weather, climate and water-related hazards in 2023. Floods and storms caused the highest number of reported casualties and economic losses, whilst the impact of heatwaves became more severe.

The WMO notes that while water disasters, such as hurricanes, flash floods, and unpredictable monsoon rains are the top threat for Southeast Asia, heat is becoming more and more of a concern each year as record-breaking heat incapacitates cities and strains infrastructure.

A report last year by World Weather Attribution, an international consortium of scientists examining the impact of climate change on weather patterns, found that the heatwaves and extreme rains that have plagued Southeast Asia in recent years are largely driven by climate change and can be attributed to man-made pressures.

Though many climate scientists and stakeholders acknowledge Asia and Oceania’s precarious position regarding the climate crisis, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are being given a seat at the table during international discussions. Pacific Islander communities have long complained that they are being overlooked and even left out of international climate talks even as they stand to be some of the most affected.

Likewise, since the 2021 coup in Myanmar, no Burmese representatives have been officially represented in international climate talks, such as the annual COP summits. While the UN’s decision to exclude the junta forces was originally hailed as a victory by Burmese Indigenous activists and supporters of the National Unity Government (NUG), failure to provide alternative methods of participation has left the country excluded and floundering in its climate mitigation strategies. 

For now, even as the temperatures have settled, many communities in Southeast Asia are still reeling from the effects of the heatwave and bracing for more to come in the future.

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