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Southeast Asia Most at Risk From Climate Change

Philippines coast line
The Philippines—along with Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam—could experience ocean warming, coral reef loss, and tropical cyclones of higher intensity if climate predictions prove correct. Wikimedia Commons/Ronnie Puckett

A new research report reveals that Southeast Asia, southern Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa are most at risk from the rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions associated with climate change.

August 27, 2013—With its many small-island and coastal nations, Southeast Asia would be highly vulnerable to climate change, and it is already experiencing negative effects from rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns, according to a report by the World Bank. Released in June, the study details the myriad problems that the region is expected to face in the coming decades as a result of more extreme temperatures, sea level rises, and other atmospheric changes.

Entitled Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience, the report predicts potentially disastrous results in Southeast Asia, as well as in southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. It was released as a follow-up to a World Bank report issued last year predicting that by the end of this century the world’s average temperature could be 4ºC higher than preindustrial levels if significant mitigating action is not taken.

The authors of this new report used peer-reviewed literature and computer modeling to project that warming by just 2ºC, which they say could occur in the next 20 to 30 years, could lead to unprecedented heat waves, storms of higher intensity, and widespread food and drinking water shortages in these regions of the globe. Additional effects in such Southeast Asian countries as Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam could include ocean warming, coral reef loss, and tropical cyclones of higher intensity. Such cyclones could exact a heavy toll in the region’s densely populated coastal areas.

The authors point out that these countries are already struggling with many climatic and other environmental issues and note that in recent years stronger storms and higher winds have brought catastrophic flooding to such major cities as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Bangkok (Krung Thep), Thailand; and Jakarta, Indonesia. They warn that as weather become more severe and less predictable, some areas could see greater rainfall and more floods, while others might experience a decrease in rainfall. Such decreases would affect not only drinking water supplies but also power generation and irrigation.

“Some places will experience less rainfall, while some places will have more precipitation and more intense rainfall,” says Shie-Yui Liong, Ph.D., M.ASCE, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute. Although Liong was not an author of the World Bank report, he has conducted research on climate change and its possible effects in the region. “Those already low-lying or flood-prone areas, with more precipitation, will witness even more severely devastating floods.”

The World Bank report finds that sea levels in Southeast Asia are rising more quickly than anticipated and that a rise by as much as 50 cm by the middle of the century may be unavoidable as a consequence past greenhouse gas emissions. This could raise the water levels of the region’s three major river deltas—the Mekong, the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady), and the Chao Phraya—endangering nearby low-lying land and marine ecosystems and harming agriculture, fish stocks, and tourism.

While rising temperatures and more rain, together with a rising sea level, are often cited as primary causes of increased flooding and inundation in coastal areas, Liong notes that attention should also be given to changing wind intensities, as stronger winds would result in higher storm surges. He says that surges could cause additional inundation depths in some coastal cities. Higher winds and intense rain around the region, he notes, have combined to cause such recent floods as those that struck Jakarta in 2007 and 2011 and left much of Indonesia’s capital underwater.

Flood problems throughout the region are exacerbated by the fact that many Southeast Asian countries extract groundwater for drinking, leading to land subsidence that is essentially causing cities to sink as water levels rise, says Frits Dirks, the projects director for Royal HaskoningDHV, a Dutch engineering firm that has proposed a flood management project to protect Ho Chi Minh City.

“Land subsidence is a serious issue—worse, I would say, than the expected sea level rise,” he says. “I think it’s quite urgent. . . . The city is slowly sinking.”

Dirks’s firm is hoping to receive clearance from Ho Chi Minh City officials to build a dike around the city’s center by 2025. The dike could then be extended and raised if sea levels continued to rise. The World Bank report says it is vital for countries in Southeast Asia and around the world to increase investment in flood management projects, as well as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve their decision-making processes for remedial steps.

“Flooding definitely seems inevitable, and that is compounded by the rise in sea level,” Liong says. “And we know that it’s going to be warmer, for sure. You can see the changes.”



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